In a sharp and unusual rebuke, the judicial nominating commission for Baltimore has refused to nominate Circuit Judge Elsbeth Levy Bothe for reappointment, making it likely she will at least temporarily lose her seat on the bench.
Commission members gave no reason for their action, though the sometimes irascible judge has been chided for interrupting trial testimony and for seeking to stay on the bench when she is close to mandatory retirement.
The action marked the first time in memory that a sitting circuit judge's name had not been forwarded to the governor for reappointment. Unless Gov. Parris N. Glendening ignores the recommendation of his newly formed commission -- something a spokeswoman described as "highly unlikely" -- Judge Bothe will be out of the job she has held for 17 years as soon as a new judge is appointed and sworn in.
Judge Bothe could run for election next year to try to stay on the bench even if she is not reappointed. But she said she was so shocked by the commission's action that she had not thought about that possibility.
"The commission people were quite antagonistic-seeming yesterday, but this has never happened before," the judge said yesterday. "I've got a fairly sterling record, I think. I think I've enjoyed a very good reputation."
But Judge Bothe, an admitted character known for her fascination with the macabre -- her chambers are filled with skeleton statuettes and trinkets -- has been dogged by criticism for interrupting lawyers and testimony in the trials before her. And some lawyers have questioned her decision to seek another term on the bench when, by turning 68 yesterday, she has only two years before hitting the mandatory retirement age for Maryland judges.
In several cases, Maryland's appellate judges have warned Judge Bothe to stop interjecting herself into cases, at one point saying she risked "not only a reversal of the conviction but embarrassing censure as well" by doing so. One Court of Special Appeals judge wrote that the trial judge appeared to be an "advocate for the state."
She also has been known for her battles with flamboyant defense attorney William H. Murphy Jr., her one-time supporter, and his former partner M. Cristina Gutierrez .
The 13-member commission, made up of six attorneys and seven citizens, interviewed candidates Monday. The names of nominees were forwarded to Mr. Glendening yesterday.
In a letter to the governor yesterday, state court administrator George B. Riggin Jr. wrote: "After conducting an extensive interview and reviewing all available information about the candidate, the Commission took a secret written ballot. The Honorable Elsbeth Levy Bothe did not receive the required number of votes." The required number is a majority of the commission members present.
Judge Bothe was the only sitting Baltimore circuit judge up for reappointment this year. The commission nominated Baltimore District Judge David W. Young to fill the seat of Judge Hilary D. Caplan, who left the bench to return to private practice, and lawyer William D. Quarles for the spot left when Judge Andre Davis was appointed to the federal bench.
In addition, six "holdover" nominees for past judgeships were submitted to the governor for consideration for those posts. All eight candidates were submitted for consideration for Judge Bothe's job.
Several commission members contacted yesterday refused to spell out their reasons for failing to recommend Judge Bothe. One said the vote was "not unanimous" but would not go further.
"I'm looking at the person I'm talking with. It doesn't matter whether it's a sitting judge," said Michael M. Hart, a commission member and chief clerk of the International Longshoremen's Association Local No. 953. While refusing to divulge his vote, Mr. Hart said: "I don't know her, didn't know her before. I did what I thought was right and the vote came out this way and that's the way it is."
Earlier this year, Mr. Glendening changed the membership and selection process for judicial nominating commissions, announcing that he was doing so with the goal of selecting more minority and women judges.
Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals since 1972, said it was the first time he could recall a nominating commission not forwarding a circuit judge's name to the governor for reappointment. A Prince George's County district judge was rejected by a nominating commission in 1977.
Some in the legal community were shocked by the news.
"She is immensely qualified," said Baltimore criminal defense lawyer Roland Walker. "She probably has handled more murder trials than any three judges in the state of Maryland. Some people find her abrasive. But nobody can criticize her and say she doesn't know the law. She's just overly involved, and a lot of lawyers resent it to varying degrees. You walk out of that courtroom, justice is done and that's for sure."
Judge Bothe said criticism of her comments during trials was overblown. She called her appellate record "relatively pretty good" and said the rebukes by higher courts were "nothing that called my essential quality as a judge into question. There is no reason they wouldn't rename me as they have everyone else. Absolutely none."