Judges' race in Balto. County has uncommon political tone


In Baltimore County, the race for Circuit Court judge - usually a sleeper as far as campaigns go - is more politically charged than ever, courthouse insiders say.

Four people are running for three slots, and while most voters would have trouble naming any of the candidates, many in the legal community see this year's election as historic.

Voters could elect an African-American to the Circuit Court, which would be a first for the county.

A candidate who did not go through the established judicial nominating process has, for the first time in recent memory, a real shot at the bench.

At least one political action committee, the Judicial Excellence PAC, was formed this week to oppose one sitting judge, Michael J. Finifter, and support the other three candidates.

And local and state political issues - from Senate Bill 509, a failed property condemnation plan that angered many in the eastern part of the county, to anti-Glendening sentiment among some voters - have figured in the race.

All this has the judges' race looking more and more like any other political fight.

Most evenings and every weekend, the candidates are out meeting voters. Their campaigns have "messages" tailored with the help of campaign managers. Political coalitions and partnerships are forming and shifting.

"We've raised it up a notch or two," said Patrick Cavanaugh, the Dundalk lawyer who was the top vote-getter in the Republican primary.

Some of Cavanaugh's detractors say he has changed the tone of the race - for the worse. They blame him for attaching politics to what they say should be an apolitical campaign, and say his slogan, "the alternative to Glendening appointees," is misleading.

But politics is already part of the judicial appointment process, and Cavanaugh says he is simply talking to voters honestly about that influence.

Circuit Court judges are appointed by the governor, who picks from a list of candidates presented by a judicial nominating commission. Those choices must eventually run for election, where they can face other candidates, such as Cavanaugh, running independently for a spot on the bench.

Elected Circuit Court judges serve 15-year terms.

Judicial candidates run in both parties' primaries. This year, three vacancies exist, so the top three vote-getters in each primary are running in the general election.

Cavanaugh and two sitting judges - Finifter and Ruth A. Jakubowski - garnered the most votes in the Republican primary. Jakubowski, Finifter and the third sitting judge, Alexander Wright Jr. won in the Democratic primary. The four primary winners are now running in the general election.

Cavanaugh has said he is not running against Wright, the first black judge to sit on the Baltimore County Circuit Court bench.

Lawyers on all sides of the campaign say they want Wright - who lost the election for circuit judge in 2000 and was reappointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening a year later - to win a seat. Baltimore County voters have never elected a black Circuit Court judge.

Wright faces an extra challenge in the election because of his name. The circuit judge candidates are listed alphabetically on the ballot, and voters unfamiliar with the race might simply vote for the first three on the list.

"I would consider it a black eye for the county if he loses again," said Salvatore E. Anello III, a Baltimore County attorney active in the sitting judge campaign.

Cavanaugh's camp has praised Wright and has made it clear his target is Finifter.

Finifter was a two-term state legislator in the northwest county and voted for the unpopular S.B. 509, which would have granted the government sweeping condemnation powers for redevelopment, and for a moratorium on the death penalty - votes Cavanaugh supporters are quick to point out.

Finifter also has less trial experience than the other candidates, which is one reason Barry C. Steel, a 27-year lawyer from Phoenix, filed this week to create a PAC to oppose his candidacy. Steel said he has numerous pledges of support.

Finifter rolled his eyes when asked about the criticism, and responded by saying he was running a positive campaign.

Campaigners for the sitting judges had similar reactions, calling Finifter's detractors a tiny minority among lawyers who overwhelmingly support the sitting judge ticket.

"Cavanaugh is focusing on Judge Finifter because he had political office before this," said Jim Temple, a lawyer who is running the campaign for the sitting judges. "That's a negative campaign, and we're really not into that."

What the campaign is into, apparently, is unity. The three sitting judges are running as a ticket, which means they are asking supporters to cast one vote for each of them, but not Cavanaugh. And despite talk of troubles within the ticket, they judges say they work well as a team.

At Essex Day last weekend, the sitting judges moved through the crowds in matching blue T-shirts, asking for festival-goers' votes.

"Look at them," said Larry Simmons, one of the campaign organizers, as the judges chatted together while pausing in the shade. "Does it look like there's any problem between them?"

But for all the campaigning, and all the maneuvering, it still remains to be seen whether voters will pay attention.

"The judges? I get confused about them," said Donna J. Harris, 41, of Essex. She was still holding the blue sticker one of the judges had given her and although she had smiled when she met them, she later said she had no idea who would get her vote.

"I just don't really know the judges," she said.

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