Sitting judges lash back at 2 challengers Mailing to women voters says foes are out of touch; CAMPAIGN 1996


Call it affirmative action strikes back.

Beset by assertions that they owe their jobs to preferential treatment, the county's first female circuit judge and first black judge charge in a mailing this week to all of the county's women voters that two of their challengers would "turn back the clock."

The charges of preferential treatment surfaced in November shortly after Diane O. Leasure was appointed Howard's first female circuit judge and Donna Hill Staton was named its first black jurist.

Many of those attacks were leveled by attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, who is white and one of the candidates running against the new judges. He has complained that Gov. Parris N. Glendening, in seeking to diversify the bench, bypassed him for a judgeship solely on the basis of affirmative action.

Until recently, Judges Leasure and Hill Staton have responded to their critics by pointing out that they underwent a rigorous screening process and were deemed qualified by a state commission. But this week's mailing delivered a sharp counterattack.

It says Mr. Smith "doesn't understand the historic significance of these appointments" for a bench that had been occupied only by white males from its start. It includes a statement by Mr. Smith, saying he "felt the pain of discrimination" when he was not appointed to a judgeship.

"Gender bias?? Discrimination?? Get real!" the mailing says. "For 129 years, Howard County's Circuit Court has been comprised of nothing but 'Jonathan Scott Smiths.' "

The mailing also says Mr. Smith's running mate, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, has failed to distance herself "from his chauvinistic sophistry."

The Gelfman-Smith campaign, which itself has launched some of the most hostile attacks in the race, called the mailing a "negative" tactic.

In a news release, Judge Gelfman said that she and Mr. Smith have run "an open and honest campaign" and have sought only to compare the candidates.

Earlier yesterday, the five candidates appeared at a forum in Columbia, where attorney Jay Fred Cohen, the fifth candidate running for circuit judge, and Judge Hill Staton tried to clear up what they deemed misconceptions.

A day after Mr. Smith questioned whether the sitting judges are handling their share of the court's criminal cases, Judge Hill Staton said she and Judge Leasure are rotated though the court's criminal docket every other week -- just like the court's other judges.

Mr. Cohen showed concern over a misprint in some of the Gelfman-Smith campaign literature a few weeks ago that incorrectly stated his age and other information.

"They tried to make me 64. That didn't work," said Mr. Cohen, who is 62. "They tried to say I only practice in Baltimore City. That didn't work. They tried to say I didn't practice in Howard County. That didn't work."

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