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Contentious judicial race nearing end Primary election for two judgeships is Tuesday; Rumors, name-calling; 5 candidates argue over experience and temperament

Selecting judges isn't a dignified process in the '90s.

The contest for two 15-year terms on the Howard Circuit Court bench has produced anonymous leaks, spurious rumors, name-calling, nasty mailings -- in something of a local version of the vitriol that accompanied Clarence Thomas' appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Within the bitter infighting are five personalities -- two judges appointed after careers in civil litigation, a district judge, a county lawyer and an elder statesman who practices law in Pikesville.

The candidates are engaged in a substantive argument over the most important qualities for voters to consider in this race. Some say experience in criminal law. Others say temperament.

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And then there are the issues of diversity and of gubernatorial appointments to the bench.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening sought diversity last fall when he appointed two women -- one of them black -- from the nominees of a state commission to fill two seats on the county's bench.

Never had a woman or an African-American held a seat on the county's circuit bench.

But two rivals said the governor overlooked their qualifications, and they quickly mounted a formidable challenge. A fifth entered the race saying he had more experience than the other contenders combined.

Tuesday's primary election will determine whether two, three or four of the candidates stay in the chase for the two circuit seats, depending on which sets of two candidates lead the separate Democratic and Republican balloting.

If more than two candidates remain, the campaign leading up to November's general election could bring back into focus many of the issues and much of the nastiness.

Reporters James M. Coram, Shanon D. Murray and Norris P. West interviewed the five candidates and wrote the following profiles.

Jay Fred Cohen

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Jay Fred Cohen has pursued only a few things longer than his 36-year general law practice: He's been married 38 years, and he has piloted recreational airplanes 42 years.

His longevity at law, Mr. Cohen says, has earned him a Circuit Court judgeship. "Experience is what counts," he says.

This is the second time that Mr. Cohen -- a resident of Columbia's Wilde Lake village for 26 years -- has sought a judgeship.

In 1989, when Lenore R. Gelfman was appointed to the county District Court, the local nominating committee didn't even include him on the list it recommended to the governor.

In a county bar association poll then, Mr. Cohen received three votes as well-qualified, 15 as qualified, nine as not qualified and 41 as unknown.

Not much has changed since then. In a recent bar poll on the five judicial candidates in Tuesday's primary, Mr. Cohen received two votes as qualified and 85 as unqualified. More than 150 bar members said they did not know him.

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Mr. Cohen says these bar ratings result from the small amount of time he spends working in Howard. His practice is based in Pikesville and takes him all over the state. "I didn't know I knew enough lawyers in Howard County for 85 of them to say I wasn't qualified," says Mr. Cohen.

And these polls don't matter, he says. "I'm relying strictly on the voters of Howard County," he says. "I think they'll be disgusted by what the other four are doing. I'm not political. The lawyers and the politicians aren't going to vote for me."

To reach Howard voters, Mr. Cohen is running a low-budget campaign in which he intends to spend less than $4,000 -- a campaign short on TV ads and long on hand-shaking. "I'm a worker. I've always been a worker," he says. "I just get out and do the work."

Mr. Cohen, 62, has been a solo practitioner for almost all of his legal career.

He started out as an Internal Revenue Service agent, putting himself through night law school at the University of Maryland, and he still does tax returns for a fee.

Divorces, contract disputes, criminal cases, real estate settlements, workers' compensation suits and bankruptcies -- he's handled them all, he says.

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He defended Steven H. Oken, who was sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of a Baltimore County woman.

He's also proud of the time, nearly a decade ago, when a Japanese businessman -- whom he had never met -- wired him $5 million to supervise several real estate transactions solely on the advice of two other lawyers.

"I get referrals from all over, and the reason is because of my experience," Mr. Cohen says.

As a judge, Mr. Cohen says, he would outdo any other judge on the bench with his tenacity aimed at lessening the Circuit Court.

"Being a judge is like being a servant," he says. "It's not a job."

Lenore R. Gelfman

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The law is in District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman's blood.

Her parents are lawyers, as are her brother and her husband, TV consumer reporter Dick Gelfman. She can't remember a time when she didn't want to be a lawyer -- or more specifically, a judge, she says.

When she was 4, her father took her on a case to see firsthand the "old- fashioned values -- honesty, integrity, the desire to help people who otherwise could not be advocates for themselves" -- that would later became the touchstones of her career, she says.

Accordingly, Judge Gelfman, 47, tried to "distinguish" herself in high school and worked hard enough to become "freshman of the year" and later junior class president at Boston University.

Panache, self-deprecation and an easy way with strangers are her trademarks. Nearly everyone who knows her calls her "Norie" -- a childhood nickname.

A former teacher, she has taught other judges courses on sentencing matters at the Maryland Judicial Institute.

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After graduating from the University of Baltimore Law School in 1973 -- the same year she and her husband moved to Columbia -- Judge Gelfman became a prosecutor in Baltimore City. Two years later, she joined her husband in their law firm. She remained there until she was appointed a District judge in 1989.

Her practice included everything from criminal law to family law to landlord-tenant matters, she says. A substantial portion, she says, was spent providing legal services to charities.

She is most proud of a case in which she convinced the court that mentally retarded people living in a group home fulfill the zoning definition of "family." As a result, "Howard County became one of the first jurisdictions in Maryland to provide equal housing access to the mentally retarded," she says.

This is the third time in seven years that Judge Gelfman has sought to become a circuit judge. She applied in 1989 and 1995 and was recommended to the governor both times by a local nominating committee. She also applied in 1990, but was not nominated.

She had not planned to enter this race until, she says, "lawyers, elected officials and residents" came asking after she was bypassed last fall by the governor. "I want people to know that it took courage for me to enter this race," she says.

Nonetheless, she and her running mate, attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, have campaigned aggressively.

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Judges need to learn residents' concerns, she says: "It's humbling to to reach out to the community and ask people for their support. I am not royalty. I am a neighbor, a wife, a mother -- a former prosecutor and practicing attorney who sees the struggles and strivings that people have."

Diane O. Leasure

Law was not Diane O. Leasure's first love. Growing up in Cumberland, she didn't know any lawyers and had no idea she would become one.

When she enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, her aim was to unravel the mysteries of the sea, not legal battles. "I wanted to be an oceanographer," Judge Leasure says.

She still lists scuba diving as a hobby, but oceanography became a memory when she left Virginia Tech in 1972 to live in New Jersey with her husband, Ralph Leasure, now a medical sales entrepreneur.

Judge Leasure, 42, is a 16-year Howard County resident who lives in the Gaithers Farm community. She graduated from Glassboro State College in New Jersey, then taught middle school while earning a master's degree in human behavior and development at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

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Law came into the picture when she met lawyers at college seminars on divorce while she was an assistant professor in Rutgers University's cooperative extension service in the late 1970s. "I was ready to change professions." she recalls.

"I saw the effect that lawyers had -- helping people to resolve problems. I saw this as a wonderful way for me to help people resolve their problems," she says.

After graduation from Rutgers' law school, she accepted a job at the Prince George's County law firm Fossett & Brugger and helped spur its growth. In her 14 years at the Seabrook firm, it grew from five lawyers to 13 -- becoming one of Prince George's County's most prominent legal concerns.

"I got a lot of responsibility very early on," she says. "I was able to get in court, conducting trials within a few months of [passing] the bar."

In her application to the state judicial nomination commission -- a confidential document obtained by The Sun -- she lists among her most significant cases an environmental lawsuit that resulted in a 1995 opinion from the state Court of Special Appeals, a franchise contract case and a federal suit claiming a concrete company misrepresented the quality of its work.

Her only direct experience in criminal law has been her three months of hearing Circuit Court cases since she was appointed by Mr. Glendening. She is the court's first female judge.

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But she isn't daunted by the challenge of sitting on the bench. The keys to success as a judge, she says, are to exercise good judgment, be decisive, have a command of the issues and impose sentences commensurate with the crime.

"I don't mean to sound cavalier," she says. "But I don't find anything in criminal law that I've had difficulty with. You do your homework. I review each case and every file of a case I handle before I go on the bench. I'm extremely comfortable."

Jonathan Scott Smith

The sport he most likes to watch, says Jonathan Scott Smith, is boxing. "The two get in there, throw their best punch, and one walks out," he says. "It's the same with trials."

A similar taste may be evident in his campaign for Circuit Court judge against Mr. Glendening's appointees. "Many [bar association members] wanted this done," he says, "but they didn't have the stomach for it themselves. So I was the gladiator put up against Governor Goliath."

Of the five candidates in the race, Mr. Smith has thrown the hardest punches -- at one point characterizing the sitting judges as so inexperienced as to need "training wheels."

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The 39-year-old Mr. Smith -- who came to Howard as a youngster and now lives in Ellicott City -- finished high school, college and law school in just nine years. In that time, he says, he underwent a "181-degree transformation" from "hippie Democrat" protesting the Vietnam War to staunch Republican who counts being in Washington to welcome home Desert Storm troops as a cherished moment.

After law school, he joined Sandra A. O'Connor's prosecution team in Baltimore County -- where he prosecuted everything from misdemeanors to death penalty murder cases.

In private practice in Howard since 1984, he's widely considered one of the county's more able defense attorneys, writing a handbook on criminal law. Recently, the civil side of his solo practice has expanded to half his time.

Mr. Smith is intense and at times seemingly aloof. "I try to keep my business and my personal life separate," he says. "I have fewer friends, but the friendships I have run very deep."

He's proud that his three most significant cases have set precedents, according to how he cited them in his application to the county judicial nominating commission -- a normally confidential document that he made public.

In these cases, state courts agreed with him that pre-emptory challenges of minority jurors could be discriminatory if the challenged jurors were of the same race as the defendant; that expert psychiatric testimony could be used to rebut a defendant's claim of consent in rape cases; and that school bus manufacturers could be held liable for accidents involving schoolchildren.

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Mr. Smith says he's running for judge in part because of his disappointment in the quality of candidates he's seen during the eight years he's served on the county judicial nominating commission. "I knew I had a stronger background," he says. As for diversity -- one of the main criteria used by the governor in appointing the two sitting judges -- Mr. Smith says what counts is not his race or gender but that he's had plenty of cases in which he's "been on the cutting edge in advancing the rights of women and minorities."

Donna Hill Staton

Donna Hill Staton has come full circle.

She began her law career as a clerk for a federal judge, handling civil and criminal cases. But after her clerkship ended in 1983, she went to work at the prestigious Baltimore law firm Piper & Marbury and buried herself in civil litigation.

Having become Howard's first African-American Circuit Court judge -- after her appointment by the governor last fall -- she began facing issues in criminal law for the first time in 12 years.

But Judge Hill Staton, 38, who grew up in Columbia and lives in Clarksville with her husband, Baltimore attorney Kerry Dante Staton, dismisses any notion that she doesn't have sufficient experience for her judgeship.

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She says that her professional background prepared her to tackle a criminal docket and that, with each passing day in court, the experience issue is becoming moot.

"We have been on the bench for three months, and we've thrown ourselves into the job," she says of herself and her fellow gubernatorial appointee, Judge Leasure, who is campaigning with her.

"The most difficult part of handling criminal cases is sentencing," says Judge Hill Staton. "What is most important, it seems to me, is exercising good judgment."

She says she bases those judgments on state sentencing guidelines, the circumstances of each case, her experiences as a citizen and common sense.

Judge Hill Staton, a graduate of Princeton University and George Washington University Law School, is the daughter of Ethel Hill, a Howard lawyer and one-time Democratic candidate for state delegate.

On the bench, she comes across more as a gentle facilitator who stays in the background than a busy referee attempting to dominate the action. Prosecutors and defense lawyers describe her as patient and prepared.

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As a lawyer, Judge Hill Staton represented individuals and enterprises, ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies.

She appeared in court "more than 20 times" over the last five years, according to her confidential application to the state judicial nominating commission, a document obtained by The Sun.

As a civil lawyer defending clients, she says, her goal often was to dispose of cases before they reached the courtroom. One of the cases listed on her judicial application is a wrongful death lawsuit against her client, an aluminum manufacturer, which was settled during trial.

"You're dealing with really large disputes with a lot of risks for the parties," she says.

She says she does not try to emulate any other judge, although she has worked with two federal judges.

"I draw upon all my experiences from court and clerking," she says. "I pull together all the qualities that are important in judges -- being prepared for cases, being thoughtful, listening to what parties have to say and not prejudging."


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