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Facing racial bias in race for judge post Bigotry taints contest, says former candidate


* Efforts to bring greater diversity to the Howard Circuit Court didn't start with this year's primary race. Second of two articles: Six years ago, JoAnn Woodson Branche launched a crusade that set the stage for this year's bitter primary race for two Howard County judgeships.

The young black woman lost her 1990 campaign for a seat on the county Circuit Court, and she says she has paid dearly for her challenge. But issues of race and gender for the first time are now being openly debated in the contest to serve as Howard judges.

In some ways, her story shows how far Howard judicial politics has come from the days when it was the exclusive domain of white males. In other ways, it shows how little things have changed.

Ms. Branche, 40, still refers to her unsuccessful challenge as "the nail in my coffin" professionally.

"To any challenge there is resentment," Ms. Branche said of her failed effort to unseat Circuit Judge James B. Dudley. Running for office, she said, "was not the easiest thing I've ever done in my life."

One of the most jarring experiences for her was how often her opponent leveled the "qualification and experience buzzwords," which, she said, are used to exclude black attorneys from office.

"They are euphemisms bandied around to create a barrier to change" instead of openly saying "they don't want a black judge," Ms. Branche said.

She noted that the same words have been used in this year's judge campaigns.

In the primary race, District Judge Lenora R. Gelfman and private attorneys Jonathan Scott Smith and Jay Fred Cohen are vying to replace Judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton.

Judge Leasure is the first woman to serve as a Howard Circuit judge and Judge Hill Staton is the first black judge on the Circuit bench. The two women were appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in October as part of an effort to bring greater diversity to the Howard bench.

Some don't like this effort, nor do they think it's needed.

"I think decisions ought to be based on merit, not on quotas," Mr. Smith said. "If the better qualified person is a woman or a minority, I would be the first one to step away."

Ms. Branche's 1990 campaign was the first to try to raise the issue of diversity in a Howard Circuit Court race.

Her opponent, Judge Dudley, had been promoted to Circuit Court from District Court in 1989. At the time, with eight judges in the county District and Circuit courts, none were black. The year before, Judge Gelfman had become the second white woman to serve as a District Court judge.

Ms. Branche wasn't considered a serious contender by most observers and her opponent because she only had about a year's work experience in the county's legal community.

Raised in Columbia, Ms. Branche started her private practice in Town Center in 1983, but closed it a year later to serve as an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore City until 1988.

She then went to work for a private city law firm. She returned to Columbia in 1989 and reopened her local criminal and civil practice in 1990 -- the same year she ran for Circuit Court judge.

"In 1990, JoAnn Branche was the Pat Buchanan of this year's presidential race. She was a person coming out of nowhere," Judge Dudley said. "She wasn't even a member of the Howard County Bar Association."

Judge Dudley acknowledges he depicted Ms. Branche as unknown and inexperienced. He says he "panicked" when she received a hefty endorsement from the Columbia Democratic Club.

"But it turned out to not make a difference anyway," he said.

He won the election with 51 percent of the vote to Ms. Branche's 38 percent.

Since then, Ms. Branche has become something of an old hand in Howard judicial politics.

She attempted to enter the fray again last year when she submitted her name to the Howard County Bar Association's local nominating committee for consideration for the two Circuit Court judgeships.

Her name was not submitted by the local committee to the state's Judicial Nominating Committee, which in turn makes recommendations to the governor.

Ms. Branche cites two reasons for this.

She says there is still lingering bitterness in some sectors of the county legal community from her challenge to a sitting judge. And she says there's still bias against blacks in the local judicial selection process.

For example, to fill one of the two Circuit Court judge positions, the Howard County Bar Association asked 177 of its members to designate which of 15 judicial candidates were "highly recommended," "recommended" or "not recommended."

They also were asked if they knew about each candidates' qualifications.

The only black attorneys on the list were Ms. Branche, Judge Hill Staton and Columbia attorney Jo M. Glasco. All received the most "not recommended" or "unfamiliar with their qualifications" from their fellow attorneys.

"It's plain greediness [by the Howard County Bar Association] in not wanting to share the higher levels of the legal profession," said Marilyn Hardin, president of the Waring Mitchell Law Society of Howard County for local black attorneys. "It just makes them play dirty."

Thomas E. Lloyd, an Ellicott City attorney and co-chairman of the bar association's judicial selection committee, said he's "at a loss to understand those who are critical of the judicial selection process."

"I look for what the [Maryland] Constitution requires -- wisdom, integrity and sound legal knowledge," he said. "I try to select the best."

Local Bar Association President Fred Silverstein added that great pains have been taken to make sure that the selection "process" is fair and unbiased, "but are the people voting biased? I can't answer that."

Fair or not, another black woman -- not Ms. Branche -- has survived that process to take a seat on the Circuit Court bench.

And Ms. Branche now is taking some pleasure in seeing Judge Hill Staton there. "I'm grateful that I opened a door," she said, "and I can't begrudge anyone who walks through."

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