Beyond party lines


ASK CAROL L. Hirschburg if she knows most of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s appointments to the state judicial nominating commissions, and the Republican party strategist will tell you no. That's a good thing because it signals that political affiliation wasn't the key consideration in determining who will screen and recommend judicial candidates.

Mr. Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, kept Maryland's judiciary firmly in Democratic hands -- so much so that qualified Republicans saw no reason to apply for judgeships, critics say. Two years ago, a survey by a Republican Party lawyer found that only 8 percent of the 144 judges appointed by Mr. Glendening were Republicans.

That dynamic certainly will change under Mr. Ehrlich. But the governor's circle of advisers -- including his wife, Kendel, an attorney -- appears to have made a concerted effort to professionalize, and by that, depoliticize, the nominating process. To do so, they expanded their immediate circle again and again to come up with an interesting array of Marylanders, not all of whom supported the Republican for governor.

Mr. Ehrlich increased the number of lawyers on the panels with the idea that members of the bar could better assess a candidate's intellectual fitness and temperament for the job. Members of the governor's former law firm are among the 154 appointees, but so too is Harry S. Johnson, the first African-American to head the Maryland State Bar Association, and David B. Irwin, a prominent Baltimore defense lawyer and Republican. And while there are two well-known lawyer lobbyists in the group, there also are individuals such as Donna H. Triptow, a lifelong Democrat and former prosecutor whose full-time work the past 13 years has been raising four children.

Any list that includes Ms. Hirschburg, a political consultant and fierce GOP loyalist, and William H. Murphy Jr., a stylish, street-savvy Baltimore defense lawyer who is a registered Democrat, can't be labeled predictable or traditional.

The commission system began in 1970 under former Gov. Marvin Mandel. At the time, it was lauded as a way to minimize the "backroom" politicking that accompanied judgeships. But even from its inception, the system has been prone to manipulation. When a governor doesn't like a list of nominees, he can send it back. It's not too difficult to decipher the message there.

While Mr. Glendening gave his critics plenty of ammunition when it came to charges that he politicized the judicial appointment process, his commitment to diversity on the bench should not be forgotten. It should be emulated.

Mr. Ehrlich's decision to broaden the base of nominating commissions may well increase the pool of prospective judges. Only time will tell. But the true test of the governor's commitment to the state of the judiciary will be the men and women he appoints to the bench. Intelligence, integrity, compassion, commitment to public service and diligence (criminal courts in Maryland have experienced an 8.3 percent increase in cases filed between 1997 and 2002) are attributes that should be "must-haves" in any judge.

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