At least three people are running for two judge’s seats on the Harford County Circuit Court bench this year – with a fourth candidate a possibility, giving voters choices that they don’t typically have.
Two of the candidates are sitting judges, both appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan in the past 15 months. The third is a longtime member of the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office who has prosecuted a number of high-profile cases and has been a finalist for appointment to the bench for several previous openings.
A potential fourth candidate, a lawyer with the Office of the Public Defender, is trying to get on the general election ballot through a petition process permitted in Maryland’s somewhat confusing process of confirming county Circuit Court judges.
Judge Paul Ishak, a former lawyer with Stark & Keenan in Bel Air, was appointed to the bench by Gov. Larry Hogan on Jan. 4, 2017, and Lawrence Kreis, who was with the Office of the Attorney General for three years after working at Stark & Keenan for 14 years, was appointed by Hogan on Oct. 19, 2017.
Kreis was named to fill the newly created sixth judge seat, while Ishak replaced Judge William O. Carr, who retired last spring. The other Harford circuit judges, in order of seniority, are Angela Eaves, who is administrative judge; M. Elizabeth Bowen, Yolanda Curtin and Kevin Mahoney.
Challenging for one of the two judgeships in the June 26 primary election is Diane Adkins-Tobin, one of two deputy state’s attorneys, who has been with the county state’s attorney’s office for 18 years.
In Maryland, Circuit Court judges must stand for election after their initial appointment by the governor. They cross file in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, with the top finishers in each moving on to the general election. Circuit judges serve 15-year-terms.
It’s rare in Harford County for two sitting judges to be running on the same ballot; rarer still for a sitting judge to be unseated by a challenger. The last time the latter occurred in Harford was 1954.
If the same two candidates lead in both primaries, the race would be essentially over, but that won’t necessarily be the case this year.
Thomas Ashwell, a public defender, could also be listed on the general election ballot if he is able to get enough signatures on a petition to make him in essence, “a third party candidate,” according to Harford County Elections Director Kevin Keene.
Keene said Ashwell wants to be listed on the ballot as a representative of Libertarian Party and would need to submit to the Board of Elections a petition signed by 1 percent of the registered voters in the county by August in order to be listed on the general election ballot. Harford has about 179,000 registered voters as of February, according to the Maryland Board of Elections.
The two sitting judges are running as a slate: “Keep Ishak and Kreis.”
“Look at the bench as a whole. The existing Circuit Court bench is very well-rounded and diverse,” Kreis said. “Voting for us keeps that team intact and keeps serving the citizens in what I believe is best for the county.”
He and Ishak have been fortunate to become judges, Kreis said, and they’re doing their best to make sure they remain.
“We work hard and we’re going to continue to work hard for the people of the county and the state of Maryland,” he said.
Adkins-Tobin said she has the most overall courtroom experience of the three and that makes her the best choice for judge.
“I have the perfect combination of legal experience, courtroom experience, service to the community and life experience that makes me the most qualified for circuit court judge,” Adkins-Tobin said. “I want to continue serving the community from the bench. I believe judges are public servants and should work for the people they serve. I’ve been serving the people of this community for 18 years and would like to continue that from the bench.”
Before joining the state’s attorney’s office, Adkins-Tobin worked for 10 years for a civil law firm in Baltimore in insurance defense litigation. She spent six years before that in the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office.
“What that gives me is a tremendous amount of trial experience, i think the most of all the candidates,” Adkins-Tobin said, adding she tried criminal cases and civil cases. “That really gives me the type of experience necessary for circuit court judge.”
Being a judge is not a learn-as-you-go position, she said.
“You have to already know how to try a case, to do jury trials, to do more difficult cases,” Adkins-Tobin, 59, said. “That’s what I’ve been doing in Harford County for the past 18 years. That’s what makes me the most qualified.”
Dating back to 2011, the Harford Judicial Nominating Commission has found her qualified to be a judge, submitting her as one of their recommendations for a judicial vacancy, Adkins-Tobin said. She has not been appointed, however, either by Hogan, who appointed Mahoney, Ishak and Kreis, or by Gov. Martin O’Malley, who filled the Curtin and Bowen judgeships, for which Adkins-Tobin also was a finalist.
“Because it’s a political appointment and I just haven’t been able to have the political backing to get the appointment,” Adkins-Tobin said.
Fortunately for the people of Harford County, the Maryland constitution requires Circuit Court judges to be elected, she said.
“So I’m taking my credentials, my background and my experience to the people of Harford County so they can see, this year they have a choice and I’m the right choice,” Adkins-Tobin said.
The Fallston resident said she’s been working hand-in-hand with law enforcement for 18 years to keep the community safe, “to maintain a quality of live in Harford County we all want, a safe community and a safe environment in which to raise our children and live our lives.”
As assistant state’s attorney, she has prosecuted some “notorious” cases in Harford, including child sex abusers, high level drug dealers and abusive parents.
Her blue-collar upbringing also plays an important role in her experience.
Adkins-Tobin grew up in Erie, Pa., with a father who worked in a locomotive plant and a mother who worked in an aluminum plant. She paid for herself to go to college and law school.
“So I really understand what it’s like to struggle financially, how hard it is for families trying to make ends meet, to make it in the world,” she said.
She’s also been active in the community, professionally and personally.
She has been on boards of and worked with the Child Advocacy Center, Family and Children’s Services and the Harford Bar Association, and has been active in Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and the PTA.
She has been married to her husband, John, who’s retired from Maryland State Police and runs the graduate forensic science program at Stevenson University, for 27 years. They have two children, Joe, 25, and Julia 22, and three adult step-children, Karin, Michelle and Mark.
Ishak has been on the bench for 14 months. He wants to continue for the same reasons he wanted to be a judge, he said.
“The ability to continue in public service is important,” Ishak, of Havre de Grace, said.
His performance over the last 14 months shows he can do the work and do it well, he said.
“I think I treat parties and attorneys with the utmost respect,” Ishak said. “The work is being done and being done well and people are being treated fairly.”
Key to being a good judge, he said, is temperament.
“It’s one thing to hear a case, it’s another to hear it and get the right answer. It’s yet another to hear a case and get the right answer and, treat people with respect and dignity,” he said. “You have to have all those other abilities.”
The rule book for being a judge says they have to be impartial, independent and carry themselves with integrity.
“And that means, from my way of thinking, you can’t go out there and say I’m going to do this or do that,” Ishak said. “You have to be open-minded and hear the entire case before you make a judgment.”
While many people may find that difficult, Ishak does not, he said.
“It’s a natural quality. For some folks, it’s a necessary quality,” he said. “A judge can’t have a quick impulse. They must be impartial, patient.”
Ishak, a long-time volunteer with Susquehanna Hose Company and St. Patrick’s Church in Havre de Grace, is has been married to his wife, April, a lawyer with Stark & Keenan, for 28 years. They have four children, Eric, 24, Nicole, 21, Joe, 17, and Gianna, 14.
The five months as a judge has been “everything I thought it would be,” Kreis said.
“It’s the ultimate public service position,” he said.
The 47-year-old Fallston resident said qualities of a good judge include a legal background and experience, as well as the “appropriate temperament.”
“You have to listen to what people have to say, be a good listener,” Kreis said.
A judge also has to be able to make difficult decisions.
“In every case there are tough decisions to be made,” he said. “You can’t be a judge by a check mark on a resume, you have to be a judge on your whole life experience.”
His professional experience includes 14 years in private practice with Stark & Keenan, where he worked with business, individual and municipal clients, and eight years with the Attorney General’s Office, where he did public service work and rose to the level of deputy counsel handling multi-million dollar contract matters.
The other part of the life experience includes being active in the community, which Kreis said he has been most of his life.
“When you’re out and about in the community, you have to have a feel for the fact that everyone’s life is not the same as yours, and you have to take that into consideration when making decisions,” Kreis said.
Among the community groups he’s been involved in are The Highlands School, Fallston Recreation Council coaching his son in youth sports, the Humane Society of Harford County, the Fallston Community Council and the Wiessner Foundation for Children Inc.