Within a few months when its three vacancies are filled, the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court bench - of all the large circuit courts in Maryland - will become the most heavily dominated by appointees by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
And, after a nearly complete turnover in seven years, it will also be unlikely to see further changes soon.
That, say court observers, raises the profile of the three judges' selection for a 10-judge bench that is now all white, with its sole black judge recently appointed to the Court of Special Appeals.
"This will be a very big appointment for diversity on the bench," said Annapolis lawyer Daryl D. Jones. "It will also send a message out to the attorneys in Anne Arundel County and law students about the openness of Anne Arundel County."
About half of Glendening's judicial appointments statewide have gone to women and minorities, and he named the first of both groups to the Anne Arundel Circuit Court, which now has two women.
Some experts say a look at the makeup of the fifth-largest circuit bench when the governor's tenure ends this year will be telling.
"The governor now has an unusual chance to make a large bench in his own image. Considering the appointments to these three vacancies, he should think about what he wants the whole bench to be like," said William L. Reynolds, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
The appointments are expected after the General Assembly session ends in April.
The governor's choices for this court are likely to continue in the job for a long time, because those on the bench are relatively young and prospects are limited for moving up to the appellate courts. Most of its judges are under age 60; the law requires judges to retire at age 70.
The Glendening appointments can leave their mark on the local Circuit Court for many years, said Carl O. Snowden, longtime African-American activist and an assistant to County Executive Janet S. Owens.
"He will have an opportunity to leave Anne Arundel County with the most diversified Circuit Court in Anne Arundel history," he said. "That would be his legacy."
Three African-Americans are asking to be considered for the county Circuit Court.
Twenty people applied for the two vacancies created last year with the departures of Judges James C. Cawood Jr. and Eugene M. Lerner. The applicants included two African-American men, Rodney C. Warren, who is a lawyer in private practice, and District Judge Essom V. Ricks Jr.
Among the 20 who applied, the judicial nominating commission recommended nine, including Warren and two women.
Last week, the vacancy left by the appointment of Judge Clayton Greene Jr. to the state's intermediate appeals court drew three new candidates, including one African-American woman, Claudia A. Barber, who has a private law practice, and a renewed application by Ricks.
The nominating commission is not scheduled to make recommendations for the third vacancy until April.
Numbers are small
Minority lawyers say there is no overwhelming number of minority candidates for the Circuit Court judgeships because, for starters, the number of minority lawyers who live and work in the county is small. Some say that might be a reflection of circumstances such as more lucrative jobs and wider career opportunities in Baltimore.
Some minority lawyers say that the county has not been viewed by minorities outside its environs as a particularly inviting place. Its established legal circles have historically been white, as is the case in many parts of the state.
"The judicial nominating and election processes in suburban and rural areas is often [seen as] controlled by an old boys' network, and the perception is that it is harder for blacks, women and people who don't practice in the locality to win approval from the local bar," said law professor Reynolds.
But, Reynolds said, that assessment might not be entirely fair, adding that some minority lawyers say they have always felt welcome in Anne Arundel.
In outreach meetings with minority lawyers last year, Glendening encouraged mentorships and judicial recruitment, said his spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie.
Privately, some say that seeing two of Glendening's black appointees rebuffed by voters in Baltimore and Howard counties in recent years has deterred other suburban minority lawyers from seeking Circuit Court judgeships. In a speech last year in Annapolis, Glendening told a mostly black crowd that when black lawyer Angela Eaves sought a District Court judgeship in Harford County, she told him she doubted she could win election to a Circuit Court seat there.
Anne Arundel County's minority population has grown to 18.6 percent African-, Hispanic- and Asian-American, according to 2000 census figures.
Minority lawyers say the number of lawyers who live and practice in the county does not mirror that trend, though bar groups do not keep such figures.
Frederick lawyer Dino E. Flores Jr., past president of the Hispanic Bar Association, said many minority lawyers are newcomers to many legal communities and there is not a critical mass of them in many suburbs.
Many are also short on experience to be contenders for Circuit Court spots, he said, and they lack the established political and social ties associated with capturing favor with their local bar and winning judgeships.
But, he said, change is coming. Minorities have flocked to area law schools in the past two decades, demographic shifts place more minorities in suburbs, and networking is under way, he said.
In Anne Arundel County, black lawyers say they will try again to create an attorneys group, similar to black bar organizations in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. A similar effort fizzled about four years ago, but a few more minority lawyers now practice in the county.
Hiring is difficult
Minority prosecutors in the office of State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee could be counted on one hand. Weathersbee said hiring and retaining minority lawyers has been extremely difficult.
Few minority law students have replied to the office's job postings. When the next opening crops up, the office will recruit at black student unions at the state's two law schools.
"Because we serve the community, we ought to look like the community, and that goes for the bench too," said Weathersbee.
Legal experts say diversity should be viewed not only in terms of race, gender and ethnicity, but also in terms of expertise, age and experiences. And, say some, points of view.
Weathersbee, for example, said he thinks the circuit bench is easier on the guilty than it used to be. He said he hopes for a different type of diversity:
"If I am looking for diversity, I am looking for judges who are not so lenient, to create a balance."