Sitting judges once again are on ballots across the state, which means Marylanders once again will be asked to vote for or against men and women most of us know nothing about. That's how it works under our state constitution.
Let's face it, most of us only know or remember Circuit Court judges if:
You went to high school with them.
They set your bail.
They preside over a big trial.
They behave badly while on duty, to wit: Lynn K. Stewart Mays, suspended last week from the Baltimore circuit bench for mocking a defendant and for losing her cool with a lawyer.
"I'm always befuddled when faced with voting for judges," writes Joan Lobell, a conscientious Maryland citizen who asked me a series of questions, starting with this: "Why are judges voted for rather than appointed?"
A lot of people wonder about this. We don't like to think of judges as politicians, but as men and women who love the law and who have experience, integrity and the high opinion of their peers. We like to believe they were chosen for their intelligence and professionalism, their sense of fairness and devotion to justice.
In fact, Circuit Court judges in Maryland are appointed by the governor when vacancies occur. The governor takes recommendations from a judicial nominating commission. But the process doesn't end there.
The state constitution requires Circuit Court judges to run for a 15-year term in the first general election that occurs at least one year after their appointment.
So, for instance, Justin King, who was named to the Baltimore County bench in December 2011, is one of four judges on the current ballot. Most county voters probably never heard of the fellow, but they'll get to vote to keep him on the bench (or toss him) nonetheless.
It's a strange process that forces judges to be the politicians most have no interest in becoming. We should not have judges standing on street corners holding up campaign signs and waving to motorists, but we do.
It's rare for a lawyer to challenge the sitting judges in these elections, but it happens, and some candidates have successfully knocked appointed judges off the bench.
And many good attorneys who have worked long and hard to build private practices never consider a local judgeship for that very reason — the politics.
Here's how a veteran litigator put it: "Assume you have worked your way up the letterhead of a venerated law firm. You leave for a judgeship and lose the election two years later. The firm may have replaced you with the senior partner's half-witted son and you are out of a job. Or maybe you build a practice through decades of sucking up for referrals. You lose the election. You go back to nothing."
Another question from Joan Lobell: "Where do judges get their campaign money?"
Lawyers and friends, lawyers and relatives, and lawyers.
"How is one to know which judges, if any, one would want to vote for?"
You would have to pay close attention to press reports. There is no easy way to assess judges' records. We don't have an agency that rates them and, even if we did, what kind of rating would we want? What we have are news reports about some of their rulings or how they sentence defendants. Occasionally we hear about a disciplinary action against a judge.
Mays was the most recent. She agreed to a five-day suspension without pay because, according to court documents, she had "mocked and ridiculed" a defendant in one case and was "disrespectful, dismissive and intemperate" toward an attorney whom the judge threatened with jail.
Mays was appointed, then stood for election 12 years ago. Anyone troubled by her behavior will have to wait until she's up for re-election in 2018 to do anything about it.
Another Baltimore judge, who was three times investigated and once reprimanded for inappropriate courtroom conduct, is Alfred Nance. He's been on the bench since the 1990s, and he's up for election again, this time with six other sitting judges. Page Croyder, a former prosecutor who ran for judge 16 years ago, entered this year's June primary specifically to challenge Nance because of what she called his poor treatment of women in court.
Croyder lost, and she blames the local media, including me, for not reminding city voters about Nance's record before the primary.
I agree that the press has an important responsibility here. We should be vigilant when it comes to judges.
But, to the central question: Should judges be running for election, taking money from lawyers, standing on corners holding up campaign signs? Should they even be tempted to make legal decisions based on how they'll play in the press and, ultimately, with voters?
If we changed the state constitution and eliminated contested elections for Circuit Court judges, we might attract better attorneys, better people to the bench. One thing's for sure: We would no longer be asked to vote for or against men and women most of us know nothing about.
Dan Rodricks' column runs three times a week. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.