Neither candidate running for the Circuit Court judge seat in Howard County has a traditional background.
Incumbent John J. Kuchno started his career as a journalist, while Quincy L. Coleman began as a parole and probation officer.
Both men, however, later went to law school at night, worked as lawyers and are now running against each other for a 15-year term on the Howard County Circuit Court.
Kuchno, 62, was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan to the Circuit Court and started in January 2019. He is seeking election for the first time.
“I love public service,” Kuchno said. “As a lawyer, the highest public service you can do is be a judge and make decisions that impact people’s lives. It’s an important job, and it’s one that challenges you every day. It’s intellectually exciting, and you feel like you’re making a difference.”
Coleman, 65, has been a trial attorney for 20 years and is also seeking election for the first time.
“I’m running to make the law work for everyone,” Coleman said. “Right now, the law is not working for everyone, and it’s about time it does. I’ve been in the courtroom for a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of things that appear to be unjust. I want to make sure everyone who comes into the courtroom is treated fairly and with the utmost respect and make the law work for everyone — no matter what your race, your socioeconomic background, your religion, your sexual orientation or your culture is.”
Kuchno said he grew up in a “working-class family,” and he didn’t think of becoming a lawyer when he was growing up.
He graduated from the University of Maryland, started working in media and began attending law school at night because he thought it would make him a better journalist.
“Then I covered a number of trials in federal and state court, and I really liked the process and said, ‘Hey, I could do that,’ ” Kuchno said. “I continued working full time in the media as a reporter until I graduated. I was fortunate to get a few job offers when I finished, and I pursued my legal career.”
He then spent the next 30-plus years as a lawyer, starting at private firms and then for 10 years with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office before his appointment to the Howard County Circuit Court.
Kuchno admits his background is “different than a lot of judges.” However, he believes his background is what makes him qualified for the job.
“Having this wide variety of experiences is something that prepares you well to be a judge,” Kuchno said. “Not one day is the same here. There is so much variety. There are so many different types of cases and laws and regulations. You need to have a broad background to handle that and handle it well."
Coleman, meanwhile, knew at 9 years old that he wanted to become a lawyer.
“I come from a large family, and I had nine brothers and sisters. I remember one of my brothers had gotten in trouble, and we were poor. The landlord agreed to represent my brother free of charge because we didn’t have the money,” Coleman said. “When I saw that, it sparked my interest in wanting to be an attorney, but I couldn’t pursue it once I finished college because I had a family, and I waited until my kids grew up.”
Coleman graduated from Frostburg State University and spent the first 23 years of his career as a parole and probation officer. After getting his law degree at night, Coleman spent the next 12 years working as a public defender before transitioning to private practice.
Coleman said he believes his time as a probation officer gives him a perspective that most lawyers and judges don’t have.
“As a probation officer, I was assigned to work with many people from different cultures,” Coleman said. “It helped me connect with people and see where people are coming from. When you’re dealing with people from different walks of life, all everyone wants is to be treated fairly and with respect.”
In the June primary, Kuchno was chosen by Republican voters to move on to the general election, while Coleman was the top choice for Democrats. A little more than 57% of Republican voters and 31% of Democrats picked Kuchno, while 39.1% of Democrats and 11.6% of Republicans voted for Coleman.
In total, Kuchno received 37.7% of the overall vote, while Coleman garnered 32%.
While judges aren’t tied to a political party, the primary process isn’t nonpartisan like the Board of Education primary. The top vote-getter on each party’s side moves on to the general election.
Early on, Kuchno led among both party’s voters — meaning if the numbers held, he could’ve run unopposed in the general election — but Coleman took the lead among Democrats later on. Z. Stephen Horvat and Stephen J. Musselman also ran in the primary, finishing in the bottom two spots among both Republicans and Democrats.
In September, the Howard County Bar Association endorsed Kuchno, which was determined by a referendum vote of the group’s attorney members.
“The referendum reflects that the record of incumbent Judge John Kuchno for integrity, temperament and professional competence is such that he is entitled to immediate endorsement for election,” David Coaxum, president-elect of the Howard County Bar Association, said in a news release.
Kuchno believes his background, his experience and his record over the past two years as a Circuit Court judge are reasons why voters should choose him.
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“I believe I have the vetted experience,” Kuchno said. "I was chosen following a very rigorous, nonpartisan selection process that included hundreds of hours between all the candidates who applied. I believe I’m worthy of the support of the people of Howard County, and I believe I’ll get the support.”
Coleman believes there are “disparities” that exist in the court system, and he hopes he can do his part in trying to eliminate those in Howard County.
“I think I’d do an excellent job as a judge, and I think I’m the most qualified,” Coleman said. “I don’t look at it as a job, but instead as a call to public service. I will listen, respect and treat everyone fairly. In Howard County, there are some disparities that exist in the courts, and I want to be a judge that makes sure that biases are eliminated as much as possible.”
The race for the Circuit Court judge seat is not the only local race on the ballot. Five Board of Education races — one for each district — are on the ballot on Nov. 3 as well.