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Elections don't do justice to state's Circuit Court judges

The Baltimore Sun

The great Federalists from Virginia and New York, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, didn't agree with the anti-Federalist views of Maryland's Jeremiah Chase on the organization of American government. However they all saw eye-to-eye on one matter: the selection of judges.

The founders would likely be appalled at Maryland's judicial system today. It has degenerated into a partisan free-for-all, with impartial judges forced to raise campaign cash in ever-larger amounts while locking out the fastest-growing political group in the state: independents. It's time to change this system and make it fair for all citizens of Maryland.

The founders understood that courts and judges were special institutions in a democracy that needed to be insulated from "intemperate" political influence. Madison argued that the "primary consideration ought to be to select that mode of choice which best secures" a well-qualified jurist.

Maryland's 143 Circuit Court judges must enter an election that is nominally "nonpartisan." Electing judges this way runs counter not only to Madison and Hamilton's advice, but also to the counsel of the national and state bar associations, the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Maryland's Courts and a host of other watchdog groups.

Most judges in Maryland are appointed using a reasonable democratic process. The governor (with the consent of the Senate) has ultimate say over the Court of Appeals, Court of Special Appeals and District Court. Judges on the appeals courts face voters in retention elections every 10 years. This method has served Maryland well for more than two centuries. But in 1970 the law was changed over concerns that the judicial appointment process didn't give women and minorities a fair chance.

Since then, Circuit Court judges have faced contested elections against any lawyer who is a member of the state's bar association. It doesn't matter if the judicial nominating commission has found the lawyer "unqualified" to serve. Candidates can make the nominating commission irrelevant. They just skip the interview process and go right to the election. And that's where political mud-wrestling takes place.

The 2004 and 2006 St. Mary's County judicial elections are prime examples of everything that is wrong about Maryland's system. Several well-funded, partisan challengers publicly hurled personal invectives or outright falsehoods in bitter campaigns. Others attacked "liberal activist judges" who would carry out agendas that included partial-birth abortion on demand, gay marriage, and a ban on the pledge of allegiance in schools. The challengers had the luxury of spelling out specific judicial platforms, taking set positions on issues such as bail bonds, work release programs, and truth in sentencing. (Disclosure: The authors are friends with one of the judges on the Circuit Court in St. Mary's County.)

Sitting judges are disadvantaged under this system. They have to campaign on their record while maintaining the difficult balancing act of politicking, raising money from lawyers, and making decisions every day in court. Studies show that voters have very little information about sitting judges and their record on the bench.

Maryland's judicial elections problem is compounded by the disenfranchisement of unaffiliated voters. More than 440,000 people -- more than 14 percent of state voters -- do not get a chance to cast their votes for judge until the general election. The primaries decided the elections in St. Mary's in both 2004 and 2006. More than 6,000 registered unaffiliated voters in St. Mary's never had the opportunity to choose.

Maryland's nonpartisan system actually encourages partisanship and often punishes the more moderate candidates, who fail to rally a partisan base of support.

The separation of powers and the protection of the judiciary from popular "factions" that Madison held dear are undermined when judges must take into consideration the coattail effects of other popular (or unpopular) candidates for legislative or executive branch offices on the ballot.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution never envisioned the judiciary to be chosen directly by the people. Hamilton wrote that "there can be but few men in the society who will have sufficient skill in the laws to qualify them for the stations of judges." It is time for the legislature to get serious about ending the rank partisanship, electoral flaws, and opportunity for unqualified jurists to reach the bench of the state's Circuit Court via contested popular elections.

Michael Cain is chairman of the political science department at St. Mary's College of Maryland and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy. Zach Messitte, now at the University of Oklahoma, is the former director of the Center for the Study of Democracy.

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