NOTHING AGAINST the alphabet, but when it comes to picking judges, it's time to pay more attention to their qualifications and less to the first letter of their last names.
Alexander Wright Jr., a well-regarded judge in Baltimore County, lost elections in 2000 and 2002 after being twice appointed to the Circuit Court. Even his successful challengers regretted his departure from the bench, particularly since he was the county's first black judge. A variety of factors played a role in those elections, of course, but one of the most unfair was his ballot position. That's determined by alphabetic order. Historically, candidates who run lower on the ballot garner fewer votes. This is particularly troublesome in judicial elections, where voters are frequently unfamiliar with the candidates.
Sadly, something very similar could happen again. Rodney C. Warren, a former public defender, is a Circuit Court appointee in Anne Arundel County. He'll be the last name on the ballot among the three sitting judges and five challengers in the March primary. Like Mr. Wright, he is well-regarded by his peers and he is black.
Allowing challenges to appointed judges is a questionable law to begin with. Maryland's appellate judges face only a yes or no retention vote. But not so Circuit Court judges, who are appointed to the bench by the governor after review by the local bar and a nominating commission. They face voters after serving at least a full year of their 15-year term.
At last count, 39 states hold elections for trial courts, according to the American Bar Association, which opposes contested judicial races. The Maryland General Assembly has been reluctant to make changes since elections protect against bad appointments and can sometimes result in the seating of better judges. In Baltimore and Prince George's County, the circuit courts were integrated much faster because black challengers could take on white appointees.
But no one argues in favor of alphabetic tyranny. In some states, candidates draw lots to determine ballot position. At least that's a bit more fair.
Fortunately, Maryland is positioned to offer an even better solution - if the legislature and governor are willing to take action. The new statewide electronic voting system has the ability to shuffle the order of candidates' names from polling place to polling place.
The touch-screen system is expected to be up and running everywhere but Baltimore this year and in the city by 2006. Changing the ballot order in the future might not help Judge Warren (or candidates in Baltimore, Frederick or Harford counties where there are also contested judgeships), but it could eventually help level the playing field for judicial races across the state.