Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe says she is retiring early so her seat is available to Judge Alexander Wright Jr., the county's only black circuit judge, who was voted off the bench in March.
Howe said that Wright's loss in the March primary was a major factor in her decision to resign, effective Jan. 12, after 15 years as a District Court and Circuit Court judge.
"I was devastated when he lost, absolutely devastated," she said this week.
In her letter of resignation, Howe told Gov. Parris N. Glendening Aug. 30 that she wanted to spend more time with her grandchild and give Wright the chance to "continue his exemplary service."
Judges are entitled to collect two-thirds of their salary when they retire if they are 60 or older and have 16 years of service. Howe, 61, said that leaving after 15 years will cost her about $2,600 a year in pension benefits, but she said she feels strongly about Wright's capabilities. "I think it's a pretty strong statement on my part."
Wright, the first African-American Circuit Court judge in the county's history, said he was honored Howe is taking such a step.
"It really says a lot," he said.
Wright, 50, said he will apply for Howe's seat, and for two other judicial openings: the District Court vacancy created by Judge Robert Dugan's election to the Circuit Court and the vacancy on the Court of Special Appeals created by the retirement of Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. in January.
Wright, who is due to be replaced in November, said that he wants to continue as a judge because he likes the work and sees a need for diversity on the bench.
"When people see that not everyone is involved in the process, there's a perception that the process isn't fair," he said.
Wright's performance as a judge was never an issue in the March 7 primary. A former assistant attorney general, he was appointed to the Circuit Court in 1998 after five years as a District Court judge and won ringing endorsements from lawyers and legal groups for his competence and professionalism.
But he finished third on both the Democratic and Republican ballots behind Circuit Court Judge Kathleen G. Cox, who ran on a ticket with Wright and Dugan, who entered the race after being passed over for the Circuit Court with Cox's appointment in 1999.
Wright said that of the three courts, his first choice would be to serve on the appeals court because of the scholarly nature of the work and because he could avoid another contested election.
After being appointed, Circuit Court judges run in contested races for 15-year terms. Appellate judges run unopposed on a ballot that asks voters for retention to a 10-year term.
"If I'm put back in the Circuit Court, and someone takes the opportunity to run against me again, I could be a sitting duck," he said.
Court of Special Appeals judges earn $114,400 a year. Circuit Court and District Court judges are paid $110,500 and $103,000, respectively. The departures of Wright and Howe will leave the county Circuit Court with 14 white male judges one white female judge, a profile that inspired Glendening this week to call the county's judicial nominating process a "good-old-boy network."
Glendening stopped short of saying that he would reappoint Wright. But he emphasized that the county's legal community needs to work harder to recruit women and African-Americans and support them in contested elections. Of Glendening's 125 judicial appointments, 46 have been women and 27 African-Americans.