Maryland Circuit Court judges periodically have to run for re-election. Five are up in Baltimore County this year, and four foes are challenging them. Five of the nine candidates will survive, but it can be any combination of sitting judges and challengers. So the judges are running against their challengers and, in effect, against each other.
This requires judges to go on the stump like any other candidates for office. It demeans them and the very concept of justice that responds to the law, not to public opinion. It subverts an orderly administration of justice. Judge-candidates have to spend long hours off the bench appealing for votes, speaking at political or civic club meetings and even handing out campaign leaflets in mall parking lots. Judges can and should put their time to better use -- for instance, studying the cases they must continue to handle during the campaign.
In none of the three counties with races are the sitting judges being challenged because they are not good judges. They are well-regarded by their peers. But the system makes it so easy to challenge that people keep doing it. In the eyes of some ambitious lawyers, sitting judges have become sitting ducks. "Nothing to lose," as one challenger said recently. Maybe not for an individual, but the public has a lot to lose, not only in mis-allocating judges' time, but also in requiring them to do un-judicial things: raise money, pat backs. It doesn't help that it's usually the money and the backs of lawyers who appear before them with some frequency. The appearance of blind-folded justice, if not the reality, is obviously compromised.
In Baltimore County the five sitting judges -- Thomas J. Bollinger Sr., J. Norris Byrnes, Robert E. Cahill Sr., Edward A. De Waters Jr. and Christian M. Kahl -- are well thought of even by some of their challengers and deserve to be retained. So does Judge Dennis M. Sweeney in Howard. So, too, does Judge J. Frederick Price in Kent.
The latter appears to be secure, running against a challenger who last time out displayed no vote-getting ability. But some well-known politicians of proven vote-getting ability are running as challengers in Baltimore and Howard counties.
Voters should remember that the skills that make good campaigners are not the same skills that make good judges.