OF THE THREE branches of government, the judiciary is the most insulated from voters. There's a reason -- the fair administration of justice demands a measure of detachment from daily political passions. States that require their judges to face election challenges can find themselves embroiled in unseemly scandals rooted in the fact that judges must solicit contributions to fund their campaigns. It's hard to be even-handed when you've got one hand out for help.
In Maryland, only circuit court judges are subjected to contested elections. Their names appear on the ballot in the first election after their appointment and, thereafter, at 15-year intervals. That may not sound like an undue burden, but it can in fact create some troubling problems. This time around, it creates some ironies as well.
One strong argument in favor of contested elections for judges has come from minority groups and women who have seen qualified colleagues passed over in favor of white males who are part of the "old-boy network." But as governors have cast a broader net in selecting judges, the traditional debate gets more complicated. This year, challenges to sitting judges could result in the defeat of some of the jurists who have brought more diversity to the Maryland bench.
In Howard County, Governor Parris N. Glendening recently appointed two well-qualified women -- the first females in the county's history to serve on the circuit court. One of them is also rTC the county's first black circuit court judge. Challenges to these judges from two men and one woman have produced a strident campaign more appropriate to a legislative race than a 15-year judicial term.
In Anne Arundel County, alphabetical listings give a lone challenger a prime ballot position. He opposes four sitting judges, including a newly appointed woman. In Prince George's, voters could unseat the first woman and the first African American appointed to that court. In Harford County, a challenger is trying to unseat the court's newest judge.
Governor Glendening has overhauled judicial nominating procedures, with an eye toward increasing diversity on the bench. But qualified candidates, whether black, white, male or female, are less attracted to a judgeship when it seems likely they will have to mount a political campaign to retain the seat.
The fact that Maryland is strengthening the accountability system for judges -- even holding public hearings in cases where judicial conduct has produced a public outcry -- also undermines the case for electing judges. This year, as in years past, voters will be best served if they cast a ballot for the sitting judges.