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In race for Carroll County Circuit Court judge, Morton and Titus differ on criminal justice reform, addiction

Judge Richard Titus, left, and attorney Laura Morton are vying for a spot as a judge on the Carroll County Circuit Court bench in November’s election.
Judge Richard Titus, left, and attorney Laura Morton are vying for a spot as a judge on the Carroll County Circuit Court bench in November’s election. (Courtesy Photo)

After June’s primary election, attorney Laura Morton and Judge Richard Titus emerged to vie for a spot as a judge on the Carroll County Circuit Court bench in November’s election.

Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Titus to the seat in November 2019 to fill the vacancy of retiring Judge Barry Hughes, which by Maryland law has forced him to run in a nonpartisan election in order to remain on the bench, for a 15-year term. Titus, who has 30 years of legal experience, was appointed to the court in 2016 before losing a re-election bid in 2018.

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Morton, a Westminster attorney who finished second in total votes in the primary behind Titus, said she has tried thousands of cases in many types of the law, including family, criminal and juvenile. She has been an attorney in Carroll County for more than two decades, she said.

The judgeship is nonpartisan on the ballot, but both candidates have campaigned due to the seat being an elected position. The Times sent a list of eight identical questions to each candidate and has included their verbatim responses to each question at the end of this article, in alphabetical order by last name.

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In their answers, both candidates said politics do not figure into their judicial decision-making. However, their answers showed contrast on several issues, particularly on criminal justice reform, which has been at the forefront of national discussions for years, as well as on addiction.

Criminal justice reform is necessary, Morton said. The system needs to better reflect the community, as well as putting law enforcement on “equal footing as everyone else when they step into the courtroom," she wrote.

“A judge should not be aligned with police and prosecutors as this undermines their ability to ensure justice and calls into question the integrity of the court,” she wrote. She also said “inherent biases” exist that can prevent justice from being attained.

Titus didn’t say if any changes need to be made, rather saying that judges “must not legislate from the bench,” and that it’s the legislative branch’s responsibility to bring about reform. Titus said he has been endorsed by Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees, the Carroll County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 20, Carroll County State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo and the Carroll County Bar Association.

“As current and future difficult times loom, Carroll County needs a strong judiciary to uphold the Constitution and keep law and order in our community at the forefront,” the Fraternal Order of Police wrote in its endorsement of Titus.

When asked to identify the biggest issues facing Maryland courts at the moment, both pointed to addiction but took different approaches.

“The continued rise of drug dealing is a major issue. Controlling drug dealing and distribution to reduce addiction is a major concern for me,” Titus wrote. “Treatment programs to reduce recidivism are fighting a losing battle if the supply of drugs is not adequately addressed.”

On the other hand, Morton did not mention drug dealing, instead pointing to a scarcity of early intervention programs and treatment for those struggling with mental health issues and addiction.

“We must do a better job of keeping people out of the court system and of providing services once they are in the court system," she said. "It is why I volunteer to help those in recovery reestablish and maintain healthy relationships with their children.”

Morton said in her responses that access to justice is a significant issue facing the state’s courts, with many people unable to afford attorneys in civil cases related to eviction and custody, for example.

“These cases have a direct impact on the lives of so many,” Morton said. “It is why I donate thousands of hours of pro bono (free) legal services to the community.”

As for the election, both said the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated physical campaigning, but that they connected with residents. Titus has put signs across the county to help with name recognition and has used social media, TV, radio, and mail-in campaigning. Morton did not mention specific campaign methods.

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The candidates' responses in full:

1. What makes you qualified to be a Carroll County Circuit Court judge?

Morton: Family, criminal, and juvenile cases make up the vast majority of the cases that come before the Circuit Court. Unlike my opponent, I have decades of extensive trial experience in these areas of the law. I also have experience in personal injury and worker’s compensation law.

As an attorney for people, not corporations, I am uniquely qualified to preside over a wide variety of cases. I have the support and confidence of the citizens of Carroll County, unlike my opponent who was already voted off the bench once before.

I have successfully tried thousands of cases from traffic court to the Court of Special Appeals. As a law clerk to the Hon. Luke K. Burns, Jr., I learned what it takes to effectively and justly manage a courtroom.

As a Carroll County attorney for over two decades, I have established and maintained great relationships with the individuals and agencies that do the hard work necessary for the court to function properly. These relationships, and my knowledge of the services and programs available in the community, are important in ensuring justice for all while providing for the safety of the community.

Titus: My 30 years of legal experience, including four years as a judge and two judicial clerkships, make me uniquely qualified. As a lawyer or judge, I have tried or presided over nearly every type of case imaginable. I have twice received the highest rating from the Trial Courts Judicial Nominating Commission following a stringent vetting process. My proven track record as a tough, but fair, judge earned me endorsements from the local Bar Association, State’s Attorney, Sheriff and FOP chapter.

2. Not all judge positions are elected around the country. How do you feel about campaigning for a judge seat? What have you done to campaign? What role does politics have in a judge race?

Morton: Politics has no place in the courtroom. This is why the election of a judge is nonpartisan. Every person that appears before the court must be confident that the judge will not allow their political beliefs or relationships with politicians to influence the outcome.

A judge who is willing to break the rules, to use political connections to their advantage, to run a partisan campaign with different messages for different voters, is not worthy of your vote. It is why I have run on my qualifications and made a concerted effort to reach out to voters across the political spectrum. My message is the same to all voters: I am the most qualified candidate, period.

The system for electing judges in Maryland allows the voters to have the ultimate say in who sits on the bench. It is important that the citizens have a voice.

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Campaigning has been more difficult because of COVID-19. It is necessary to be more creative in reaching out to voters. I have had the opportunity to directly connect with the citizens of Carroll County. This has been a blessing as it has reinforced for me that, despite political differences, voters want a community that comes together for the betterment of all.

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Titus: I am not a politician, so the process is both challenging and demanding. However, I have appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity to meet so many good people across Carroll County. While I continue to work hard on my race, my number one focus has remained on serving the residents of Carroll County from the bench as a Circuit Court judge.

As a resident of Carroll County for almost 30 years, I understand the importance of running a grassroots campaign. I have worked hard to meet and talk to as many voters as possible, but this has been exceptionally difficult through the pandemic. In order to ensure that residents know my name, I have placed signs across the county. I am humbled by the outward show of support. I have also utilized mail, TV, radio and social media to get my message out to the voters – emphasizing my experience as a tough, fair and trusted judge.

Judicial races are nonpartisan on the ballot meaning party affiliation is not listed. When multiple candidates run for a judicial position, it becomes a political race by its very nature. For example, the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee announced its public support of my opponent in July and my opponent publicly declared that she is a Democrat. In response, I disclosed that I am a Republican and accepted the endorsements of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee and Carroll County Legislative Delegation. While party affiliation may be relevant to some voters during the election process, politics makes no difference in how I decide cases as I have no reason to know party affiliation of litigants.

3. Is there anything you think that people don’t understand or misunderstand about the position of a judge?

Morton: The role of a judge is different according to the type of proceeding. In a jury trial, the judge is there to make sure each side presents their case according to the rules of evidence. The judge ensures the law is followed but the jury determines the facts of the case. In non-jury trials, the judge becomes the fact finder and applies the law. In all cases, the judge must treat everyone fairly and impartially. It is important to have judges that are experienced, have integrity, and are committed to justice for all.

Titus: Most people don’t understand how difficult the job can be to perform. In particular, decisions involving custody of children are incredibly difficult as is fashioning appropriate sentences in criminal cases.

4. What are the biggest issues Maryland courts face right now?

Morton: A big issue facing the Maryland courts is access to justice. Many people cannot afford an attorney in civil cases yet issues such as custody and visitation, evictions, and protective and peace orders are civil matters. These cases have a direct impact on the lives of so many. It is why I donate thousands of hours of pro bono (free) legal services to the community. It is also why I work to teach those who represent themselves how our court system works and how to effectively present their cases.

In criminal cases, there is a constitutional right to an attorney. The Office of the Public Defender does an excellent job of representing their clients. However, limited resources and increasing caseloads makes their job very difficult.

The increase in the number of individuals with mental health and addiction issues is another major issue. The lack of early intervention programs and mental health treatment can be seen in our courts every day. We must do a better job of keeping people out of the court system and of providing services once they are in the court system. It is why I volunteer to help those in recovery reestablish and maintain healthy relationships with their children. It is also why I work with organizations that focus their efforts on early intervention for at-risk youth. Stopping the cycle and reducing recidivism rates not only helps our court system, it benefits our community.

Titus: The continued rise of drug dealing is a major issue. Controlling drug dealing and distribution to reduce addiction is a major concern for me. Treatment programs to reduce recidivism are fighting a losing battle if the supply of drugs is not adequately addressed.

5. What should courts do in response to COVID-19 in terms of courtroom safety protocols?

Morton: COVID-19 is unlike anything we have seen before. It is important to protect our first responders, courthouse personnel, and the general public. The most effective way to do this is by having protocols in place that provide layers of safety for everyone. Wearing masks, social distancing, temperature checks, and sanitizing courthouses are important measures. Conducting hearings by video or phone, when appropriate, helps to reduce the number of individuals in the courthouse. All of these are important measures that allow the courts to continue to function safely and effectively.

Titus: In the wake of the COVID pandemic, the Maryland courts adopted a comprehensive, five phase plan to resume full operations while safely addressing COVID concerns. In addition to following social distancing protocols and extensive utilization of PPE, all court operations have resumed through utilization of remote video hearings and the modification of courtrooms including installation of safety barriers.

6. What is injustice, in your mind?

Morton: The biggest injustice occurs when an innocent person is incarcerated. Someone who has lost decades of their life behind bars can never be made whole again. It also calls into question the integrity of the justice system. It undermines the respect for our judicial institutions that citizens must have if the courts are to be a true pillar of our society.

Titus: This is a very broad question. To me, as a Circuit Court judge, an injustice occurs any time an individual’s Constitutional right to due process of law is not adequately protected at all stages of legal proceedings.

7. How would you handle injustice in your own courtroom?

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Morton: Injustice in the courtroom is best addressed by having a judge who is truly fair and impartial. A judge must hold everyone in their courtroom to the highest standards, including themselves. A judge cannot, and should not, tolerate disrespect for anyone no matter their race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender. Judges set the tone in their courtrooms and must make clear through their own conduct that the function of the court is to ensure justice for all. As a judge, I will be committed to this principle.

Titus: Again, this is a very broad question and it depends on the circumstance. For example, if a search and seizure were found to have been performed illegally, exclusion of improperly obtained evidence may be warranted. In a domestic setting, failure by a parent to abide by a visitation order may warrant judicial action including contempt proceedings. Whatever the circumstance, my fundamental goal is to ensure justice is provided in all court proceedings.

8. George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May and other events in the past several years have brought about a national reckoning in terms of the criminal justice system. A wave of ‘progressive prosecutors’ have been elected across the nation. What changes need to be made to the criminal justice system, if any?

Morton: The criminal justice system needs to change. First, it must be reflective of the community. We cannot continue to have lawyers from the same politically connected law firm appointed as judges. We need judges from different backgrounds and a variety of life experiences.

Second, we need to understand that law enforcement can be respected for the difficult job they do while still being on equal footing as everyone else when they step into the courtroom, as the law requires. A judge should not be aligned with police and prosecutors as this undermines their ability to ensure justice and calls into question the integrity of the court.

Finally, we must acknowledge and address the inherent biases that exist and which act as a barrier to justice. Everyone should be given their fair day in court. Everyone must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Once an individual is proven guilty, the goal in sentencing must be the safety of the community. In the short term this means holding offenders accountable for their actions and removing them from society if necessary. In the long term this means providing offenders, whether incarcerated or not, the tools to become productive members of society and removing the barriers they face. Successful outcomes can only happen if we provide addiction and mental health services, educational and employment opportunities, family reunification, and a support system. Reducing recidivism rates is not only moral and just, it is cost effective and better for the community.

Titus: The job of a Circuit Court judge is to fairly and impartially apply the law to all parties; a judge does not and must not legislate from the bench. Whatever changes are to be made to the current criminal justice system, they must be initiated by the legislative branch of government.

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