The question of who will be Carroll County's newest judge -- a post that embodies the principle of fairness and impartiality -- has set off a series of partisan volleys.
The decision returns to Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who must consider Carroll County's overwhelmingly Republican political base, and whether anyone he chooses would face a battle for acceptance in the conservative county.
"Deal-making, political contributions, back-scratching -- all of the things political campaigns bring with them, you find being heaped upon the branch of government that was designed to be immune from them," said Damian L. Halstad, a Westminster lawyer who was appointed by Glendening to the Carroll Circuit Court bench Oct. 13.
Halstad, a Democrat, announced Monday night he was declining the appointment because of the battle promised by Republicans in the next election.
Such a battle, he said, would have further divided the legal community with a "political fiasco," undermined the credibility of the office and perhaps opened the way for an unqualified candidate to win.
He decided to step aside and let the governor appoint someone else. Glendening said in a prepared statement Monday night that he would make a decision by the end of this week.
Appointees must run for election to keep their seats. While sitting judges typically are not challenged unless they are accused of misconduct, appointees of the governor have been challenged at elections in Baltimore and Howard counties in the past five years.
Admirers called Halstad's decision noble and unselfish, while detractors such as Del. Carmen Amedori, a Carroll Republican, said Halstad knew he would lose an election.
Amedori said her criticism of Halstad's appointment was not purely partisan, but because she believed him to be the least qualified and experienced.
She said the person the governor appoints might face a challenge in the March primary or November 2000 election.
"This is the United States," Amedori said. "That seat is up for grabs. It's a very democratic process for anyone to want to run in any election."
Amedori also noted that the remaining two Circuit Court judges are advancing in age and funding an additional judge's position has been discussed. She said it is possible that Glendening or his successor could have a chance to load the bench in Carroll County with liberal appointees who owe him favors.
"I don't think Carmen understands how the process works," said Halstad, who said the best judges should be blind to party lines. Judges who are appointed are no longer accountable to the governor, he said.
"Once you take the oath as a judge, that's over," Halstad said of partisanship. "You're no longer allowed to have a predisposed political philosophy."
Now that Halstad has declined, at least one man who would have run against him said he will probably not challenge the remaining nominees that Glendening is likely to choose.
Jerry F. Barnes, a Republican and the state's attorney for Carroll County, said yesterday he had seriously considered opposing Halstad in the March primary. He is married to Amedori.
"As a result of Halstad's withdrawal, it will no longer be necessary for me to pursue" running in the primary, said Barnes, with the understanding that Glendening will make another appointment from among the four remaining candidates.
Those candidates are Democrats Michael M. Galloway and Fred S. Hecker, Independent Charles M. Preston and Republican Thomas F. Stansfield.
None of those four is as politically active as Halstad, who is a member of the Democratic Central Committee and has been involved in supporting other Democratic candidates. Halstad was elected in a nonpartisan race as a member of the Westminster Common Council and serves as its president.
Galloway, also on the list of nominees for the bench and a law partner of Halstad's, said he admired his partner's "unselfish" move to decline the appointment.
"It would seem to me that whoever might have run against Mr. Halstad would be hard-pressed to find a reason for running against the others, unless it was for partisan reasons or just to be opportunistic," said Galloway.
Stansfield said he was "very much surprised" to hear that Halstad declined the nomination.
"It was one of the most politically courageous acts I've heard about," Stansfield said.
Preston and Hecker could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The appointed judge will replace Francis M. Arnold, who stepped down from the bench in June after reaching the judiciary's mandatory retirement age of 70.
Halstad, 38, was viewed in courthouse circles as the governor's "political favorite" from the moment the list of nominees was chosen by the judicial nominating committee in August.
Clark Shaffer, a Westminster lawyer who served on the judicial nominating committee, called Halstad's declining the governor's appointment a "bombshell."
Shaffer said Halstad "accurately read the political climate" and realized the potential for a "politically contested election, and it wasn't going to be a pretty sight."
Shaffer said Halstad exhibited "great statesmanship" during a statement delivered at the meeting Monday of the Westminster Common Council, where he was expected to announce that he was resigning as council president.
Shaffer said all of the nominees were considered good candidates, so whoever is appointed in Halstad's place will be a solid choice.
Jerry Joyce, an assistant state's attorney who is running for a Circuit Court seat on the bench in Frederick County, said he liked Halstad, and found him to be "personable" and have "an excellent temperament."
But Joyce said he was confident that Halstad would have lost an election for two reasons.
"This is a conservative county, and Damian's appointment was seen as a Glendening favorite," and people believe other candidates with more experience in litigation would have filed to run against him, he said.
Joyce said the judicial process can't be apolitical "when a governor acts primarily for political concerns" and the process "has to be placed in the hands of the political electorate."
Barnes said he did not expect a rush by many to jump into the race against whomever Glendening appoints.
"The remaining candidates are highly qualified," he said.