Law may help challenger

The Baltimore Sun

The supposedly nonpartisan, three-way contest for two Howard County Circuit Court judgeships has produced no debates over courtroom issues -- but is highlighting a quirk in the state's electoral system that appears to give the nonincumbent challenger an edge in Tuesday's primary.

Ellicott City lawyer David A. Titman has battered appointed sitting judges Louis A. Becker and Richard S. Bernhardt with charges that they are compromising their integrity by accepting campaign donations from lawyers. And he has another tactical weapon in his arsenal: He already is the nominee of Maryland's tiny Libertarian Party.

That means that even if Titman comes in third in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, he still will be a candidate in November's general election. Since only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote for the two 15-year judgeships in those major party primaries, third-party nominees must appear on the November ballot.

Becker or Bernhardt, however, face elimination if either comes in third in both primaries.

Donna Duncan, director of the election management division of the state elections board, said the issue came up in another county in 2004, and the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, recommended that the General Assembly consider altering state election laws. No such change was made.

"I don't think it's fair," said Becker, 62, a 16-year veteran District Court judge appointed with Bernhardt, 47, to the Circuit Court bench last year by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Bernhardt was a public defender for 16 years and then served as an assistant attorney general. Both were recommended to Ehrlich from among 13 applicants by a committee of peers and citizens.

Electoral process aside, the only major issue raised in the judicial primary has been Titman's complaint that Becker and Bernhardt are taking thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Howard County lawyers who often practice in their courts.

The two sitting judges are running together and have raised about $60,000 to Titman's $13,000. Titman tried last fall to get contributions from lawyers, too, but later he decided to return the little he collected and instead announced that he would not accept lawyers' money on ethical grounds.

"I don't accept contributions from lawyers," said Titman, 58. "I want to prove to all the politicians and to all the future candidates that you don't need to raise a lot of money to run a successful campaign. If your message is right and you work hard to contact voters and go door to door, you can win."

David A. Johnson, chairman of the Howard County Libertarian Party, said in an e-mail that Titman approached the county chapter of the Libertarian Party seeking the nomination, and the state party -- impressed by his pledge not to accept donations from lawyers -- nominated him.

Common Cause Maryland Director Bobbie Walton said judges taking campaign money from lawyers "on the face of it does present a very grave conflict of interest, especially in a sector of government the public relies on to be impartial." Her group advocates public funding of elections.

The sitting judges can't be blamed for "the system they inherited," she said. Judgeship elections may be just the place to start public election financing, she said.

Of his contributions from lawyers, Becker said they're merely trying to support the judicial system.

"I think I have a demonstrated track record of being a fair and impartial judge," Becker said.

Becker, who helped create Howard County's first drug court in District Court, said he wants to be a Circuit Court judge because "I really wanted to continue to give back to the community. I really wanted the professional challenge of dealing with some more challenging matters. I thought I had something to offer, and I'm not ready to retire," he said.

Bernhardt said he was willing to accept contributions because, once elected to a 15-year term on the bench, he would not need to raise money again, and thus would not feel beholden to anyone. Both judges have said they have not and won't ever look at the list of donors.

Bernhardt also said he and Becker were recommended for judicial appointments by several judicial nomination commissions -- committees of lawyers and citizens --while Titman has not.

"The system is designed to remove the politics from it by limiting the people [the governor] can choose from," he said. "The focus is really on qualifications."

He also said that while sitting judges typically run together, "the real issue has to do with educating the voters on who's who. If I've been a judge for a year and I've done a good job, why would voters want to remove me in favor of a person who has not been a judge and does not have a track record?"

Titman said he has years of mediation experience in divorce and custody cases in his domestic law and criminal solo practice -- experience that he feels is more valuable and less restrictive than either Becker's or Bernhardt's years of service.

"I have a very good feeling for those types of resolutions," he said.

He calls the nominating commission system "the good old boy system. Those who are politically connected get the judicial appointments." His own qualifications are the best, he said.

"I'm fighting incumbency."

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