THE LAST TIME AROUND, challengers for two Howard County Circuit judgeships argued that experience was the most important quality in determining who belongs on the bench. But several legal experts said otherwise. More important, experts said, is the ability to make good decisions, something that may or may not come with time.
For all their experience in legal matters, the challengers, District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith, made an unwise decision on the morning of Sept. 5 near Columbia. That day, as they campaigned with signs by the side of Route 108 near Route 175, a minor auto accident occurred near them. The driver of a car, an admitted friend of one of their opponents, blamed the accident on the distraction caused by the candidates' sign-waving.
The best decision would have been for the candidates to perform a simple act of courtesy and compassion by offering words to comfort the drivers involved in the accident. The worst decision is the one they made. "They left immediately," complained Joe Wisniewski, an Ellicott City man whose car was rear-ended. "They did not want to be part of something that they may have helped initiate."
No case law, no statute, no court code could have advised the candidates on how best to handle this awkward situation. The matter called for the good judgment we expect from a Circuit Court judge.
For certain, Judge Gelfman makes good decisions daily on the District Court bench, and Mr. Smith could not have become a successful criminal/civil attorney without making good choices. But the traffic incident was troubling because both made an extraordinarily bad decision in an accident that may have been linked to their controversial method of campaigning. No, they were not required by law to stay at the scene, but the image of judicial candidates appearing to flee is unpleasant.
When voters go to the polls Nov. 5, experience won't be the only factor. If it were, sitting judges Diane O. Leasure and Donna Hill Staton would be the lone candidates who have done Circuit Court work. Voters instead will weigh whether a judicial candidate can handle high-pressure situations with patience and wisdom -- not run from them.
Pub Date: 9/16/96