The same three candidates in the primary election race for two Harford County Circuit Court judgeships will square off again in the November general election, with a fourth candidate added to the mix in a race that is being closely watched locally for its political and judicial implications.
Thomas Ashwell, a public defender, who as a registered Libertarian was precluded from being on the ballot in the primary, joins sitting judges Paul Ishak and Lawrence Kreis on the Nov. 6 ballot along with veteran county prosecutor Diane Adkins Tobin, who secured her spot by finishing ahead of Ishak and Kreis in one of the June primaries.
Ishak has been on the bench for 17 months and Kreis for 10 months. Both were appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican popular in Harford County, who will be atop the general election ballot seeking his second term as the state’s chief executive.
A sitting Circuit Court judge in Harford hasn’t been unseated in an election since 1954. In scores of elections in the ensuing 64 years, incumbent judges who stood for election prevailed, including those who were challenged.
This, however, is an unusual election. Having two sitting judges on the same ballot seldom happens – it last occurred more than 30 years ago. Most of the time only one judge is running, and the incumbent will face one or more challengers in the primary, but win soundly to ensure a 15-year term with no general election opposition.
All three candidates in the race for Harford Circuit Court judge who were on Tuesday’s primary ballot will be back on the general election ballot in November, after a challenger to two sitting judges finished well enough to deny them outright victories.
Ishak was appointed to fill the county’s new sixth judgeship following its creation by the legislature in 2016. Kreis was appointed to a vacancy caused by a retirement. This year is the first election in which they could run.
By state law, Circuit Court judges are required to stand for election at the next election following their appointment. Any lawyer in good standing, who resides in the county, can challenge them. In primary elections, candidates cross file as Democrats and Republicans, and if a single candidate wins both, they move to November without opposition.
In June, Ishak and Kreis finished in the top two slots, respectively, in the Republican primary, while Adkins Tobin was first in the Democratic primary ahead of Ishak, with Kreis finishing third.
Overall, Ishak had the most votes in the primary with 18,421, followed by Adkins Tobin with 16,622 and Kreis with 15,462.
Although the general election is non-partisan – candidates are not listed on the ballot by party – Ishak, Kreis and Tobin are registered Republicans, the party that has dominated elections in Harford for the past 25 years.
Ishak and Kreis are running as a team. Of the two, most people who are watching the race closely believe Kreis is the most vulnerable because he spent several years working in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office prior to his appointment, while Ishak has been more active practicing law locally and politically prior to becoming a judge. Both were previously affiliated with the influential Bel Air law firm Stark & Keenan P.A.
In early July, Hogan appeared at a First Fridays event in Havre de Grace that turned into a de facto campaign event for the governor and the two judges, who posed for photographs with the man who appointed them.
Adkins Tobin has prosecuted several high profile criminal cases, while also leading the Harford County Child Advocacy Center, which investigates and prosecutes crimes against children. Ashwell has been on the defense side in a number of local criminal cases.
“I’m running because, as I think is evident, I’ve been trying for a very long time to go the conventional route and get appointed,” said Adkins Tobin, who was a finalist for both the Ishak and Kreis judgeships. “But I haven’t had the political connections necessary to get the appointment.”
That she’s made the short list, deemed to be qualified by the commission, whose members are lawyers and laymen appointed by the governor in office, she is running to give voters a choice, she said.
“I believe in what the Maryland constitution provides, that people have the right to choose who sits on the bench and who judges them,” she said.
She’s well-suited to be a judge because of her courtroom experience, legal experience, her temperament and her ability to be fair and impartial, Adkins Tobin, a Fallston resident, said.
“I’ve only been doing trial work my entire career — getting into the courtroom and standing in front of a judge and a jury and trying a case,” she said. “That’s the experience we need for a circuit court judge and that’s the experience I have.”
She comes from a blue collar background, giving her the appreciation and understanding of hard work, she said.
“So when people come before me and are hard working and really just want to live and raise their families, I can understand that,” Adkins Tobin said.
She has been with the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office for 18 years. She’s also been involved in local PTAs, Scouts and the Fallston Rec Council.
“I’ve done a lot for the community, and I’m very vested in keeping Harford County a place we want to live and raise our children,” Adkins Tobin, said.
She and her husband, John, have two children, Joe, 25, and Julia 22, and three adult stepchildren, Karin, Michelle and Mark.
As for her campaign, Adkins Tobin intends to keep doing what she did in the primary — reaching out to a lot of groups, talking to people, meeting them and shaking hands.
“Just meeting and greeting the people. The best way to campaign is to meet the people and I’ve worked hard to do that. I think it was reflected in the [primary] results,” she said. “I’m fighting an uphill battle. Running against two sitting judges is no easy feat.”
She asks that voters, when casting their votes, look at the qualifications of all the candidates.
“Actually look at the qualifications. All the candidates say they have trial experience — look if they actually do and what kind of trial experience it is. Look very carefully,” Adkins Tobin said.
Voters typically haven’t paid much attention to the judicial races in Harford County, she said, because they’ve never had a legitimate choice.
“I’m giving them one,” she said. “I’m asking voters to look at what our qualifications are, what all of us have done in our legal careers. Once they’ve done that, I feel positively they’ll all think I’m the right choice for judge and that they’ll vote for me.”
An Abingdon resident, Ashwell has spent a lot of time in a courtroom as a public defender.
“The thought is, if you have someone who is going to be a judge, you want somebody who knows what the inside of a courtroom looks like, knows it inside and out,” said Ashwell, who also spent time in private practice before becoming a public defender. “I like Judge Ishak. I don’t know Judge Kreis very well, but what I know about both of them is they’re not in court nearly as often as I am.”
Compassion is a key trait judges should have. Of the incumbents, Ishak has it, Kreis does not, Ashwell said.
“Judge Ishak is a people person. He can look behind the charge and see the person and what’s going on,” Ashwell said. “Judge Kreis doesn’t seem to have that. He’s been dealing some pretty terrible blows to criminal defendants. He needs to be able to interact with people on the other side of the table and have some compassion for them.”
Ashwell said he has been a registered Libertarian for 12 years.
“I really do believe that we need less government, more individual opportunity in all aspects of how we live our lives. Not government, but everywhere,” he said. “I would love to see folks really be able to truly, freely interact. I really do believe in free trade and free people.”
While the judicial race is non-partisan, party affiliation will matter on the bench, Ashwell said. Judges have a certain set of rules to follow, but there are cases when they have the opportunity to use their discretion.
“That happens a lot in the course of any kind of case,” he said. “In a suit, if I have to make a decision not firmly set in law, I will make a Libertarian decision, which I think will be great for everyone involved.”
There are a lot of things people should be put in jail for, Ashwell said, but there are a lot of other things they shouldn’t be. Libertarians, he said, believe that if there’s no victim, there’s no crime. If someone has marijuana in their pocket, why should they be put in jail?
“They do that a lot in Harford County,” he said. “As a judge, when I have the opportunity to exercise discretion, judicial philosophy and politics make a difference.”
Ashwell said he has the personality traits to be a judge, including the ability to talk with anyone.
“I can sit down with a group of CEOs, dock workers, a group of homeless guys around a trash fire and I can talk with all of them. I can have a conversation,” he said. “You have to be able to talk to folks to know who they are and where they’re coming from. How do you know what they’re all about otherwise? You need to be able to understand everyone you’re talking to and interpret that as how you do your job as a judge.”
Ashwell is getting out and meeting the voters at the farmers markets, the Farm Fair, the Barbecue Bash. He’s door knocking and “getting out there and talking to folks.
Campaigns are expensive, he said, but a strong campaign fund isn’t all that necessary.
“As countywide races go, you get out there, they see your face, shake your hand and talk to you for a minute,” he said. “You let them know you’re out there to make a difference.”
Ishak, 55, said the feedback he’s received since being sworn in Jan. 4, 2017 “has been very, very positive.”
“People want to appear in front of me. When they get a ruling, whether they won or lost, they were heard,” said Ishak, a Havre de Grace native, who has lived in that community all his life. “Like it or not, they understand why I ruled the way I ruled. The key is when you’re ruling against somebody to still treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve, as a fellow Marylander, as a fellow human being.”
People who appear in court, for whatever reason, are in stressful situations. Sometimes they don’t anticipate what the results will be because they haven’t thought it through all the way.
“I’ve had people say ‘Hey judge, you listened to my side of the story. I didn’t like that I didn’t prevail, but at least I got my story told,’” Ishak said. “That’s the best we can do as judges.”
Ishak said he enjoys being able immerse himself in a case two sides have not been able to resolve.
“I have no problem doing that, I enjoy doing that because in the end, we are helping people and upholding what the court is all about,” Ishak said.
Ishak said this judicial race has become very political, even though it’s non-partisan and sitting judges aren’t supposed to be running on party affiliations.
“I have not seen as politicized a judicial race as this one has become,” he said.
“We have a responsibility as sitting judges not to do that [run unaffiliated], regardless of the party affiliation of the person who appointed us,” Ishak said. “The last thing you want in a judge, a person on the bench who thinks they’ll be treated differently because of their party affiliation.”
The voters should choose him for the same reasons Hogan appointed him, Ishak said.
“He, I believe, was looking for someone with broad experience, trial experience, who he thought was going to have a judicial temperament,” Ishak said. “Not only would I rule on cases, but in such a way that people would feel they’ve been treated fairly and well and have a chance to have their cases heard, and I think that’s the what the number one job of a judge is.”
Despite having to run a difficult campaign while fufilling their judicial duties, he and Kreis have been getting the hang of it, Ishak said.
“Campaigning is actually a lot of fun,” Ishak said. “So many people in the judicial world want to end judicial elections. But I said from the very beginning, the kinds of things we work on are so deep and important that it’s OK to stand and talk to the public and kind of prove yourself to the public.”
The pair have been going to as many events as possible and as the general election nears, it will get even more amped up, “so you can’t let your foot off the gas,” he said.
Sworn in to the bench Nov. 17, 2017, Kreis said he brings his diverse experience to the bench. He was in private practice for 14 years doing general litigation, transactional work, he represented businesses — small, medium and large — and individuals, both plaintiffs and defendants.
He also spent eight years in the Attorney General’s Office doing contract litigation. He handled multi-million dollar cases for state agencies — the University of Maryland schools, the Department of Transportation and the Department of General Services.
His community activities are as important as his professional background.
Kreis, 49, has lived in Fallston for 20-plus years, he has a son in public schools and he’s active in coaching rec sports. He’s been on the boards of the Humane Society of Harford County and the Highlands School as well as the Fallston Community Development Advisory Board.
“Because what we see on a regular basis, you have to have a human aspect to be a judge,” Kreis said. “Most attorneys can read statistics and apply law. But they have to be able to apply the law to the facts of a case and have the experience professionally and personally to figure out the decisions in the cases.”
As a Republican, Kreis said, he is honored to have been appointed by a Republican governor.
“He’s one of the most popular, successful governors in the country,” Kreis said. “To have his support…going forward, I think it’s critical and I’m honored and proud to have that.”
Harford’s bench has a good balance right now — three women, three men, with different racial and ethnic backgrounds and different professional backgrounds. He wants to maintain that balance.
At campaign events, Kreis said doesn’t campaign as a Republican or Democrat or Libertarian, he runs as a judge.
“As a judge, you’re here to make decisions for everybody,” he said.
Candidates across the state were required to file campaign finance reports in mid-June, just before the primary election. The next reports are due Aug. 28, according to the Maryland Board of Elections website.
As a slate, Ishak and Kreis had $16,802.49 in the bank as of June 15, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed June 15. They had raised $8,549.04 during the most recent filing period and spent $11,888.50, according to the state elections website.
Individually, Ishak had a balance of $11,597.87; he didn’t raise or spend any money during the filing period. Kreis had an account balance of $4,221.01 after spending $2 during the filing period.
As of June 15, Adkins Tobin had $10,079.45 in her campaign account. During the filing period, she raised $1,100 and spent $5,977.16.