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Editorial

For the sitting judges

Regular readers of this page may recall that we are not fans of forcing Maryland's appointed circuit court judges to run in open elections. They are the only members of this state's judiciary who can be unseated by any Tom, Dick or Harry with a filing fee, and even the most attentive voters are rarely well versed in the qualifications and skills of judicial candidates. That such elections force judges to solicit campaign donations from the very lawyers who appear in their courtrooms is ethically unsettling to say the least.

But the law is the law, and Baltimore has a contested judicial election on the ballot this year. So how is a city voter to choose among those seeking a 15-year term in office? The most rational course of action is this: It's up to the challengers to demonstrate that they can do a better job than one or more of the sitting judges. All six of those judges received their appointments only after undergoing an elaborate vetting process that required they be interviewed by local bar associations and by a nominating committee before the final decision is made by the governor.

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In this case, the challengers have failed to offer a compelling reason not to support judges Shannon E. Avery, Audrey J. Sylvia Carrion, Michael A. DiPietro, Karen "Chaya" Friedman, Wanda Keyes Heard and Cynthia Jones. Neither City Councilman James Kraft, 66, who is vacating his District 1 seat, nor Todd Oppenheim, 37, a city public defender, has made a compelling case that any of the incumbent judges is unqualified for office — or even that they are more qualified to serve.

Indeed, they've declined to criticize the sitting judges directly — aside from pointing out the judges have run as a single ticket and are loath to discuss their decision-making (often citing the restrictions of the judicial code of conduct). As even Councilman Kraft noted in his interview with The Sun, "There are good judges among the sitting judges." But if he and Mr. Oppenheim are not going to criticize the records of any individual currently on the bench, how can voters be expected to choose them against the incumbents? It is the Catch-22 of open judicial elections.

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We are not unsympathetic — at least to a degree. Running against incumbent judges is not the way to curry favor within the insular world of the bar or the bench. And telling voters to favor the "top six" on the ticket as the sitting judges have done (the incumbents having the benefit of being alphabetically ahead of the two challengers on the ballot) may be an effective slogan, but it's not particularly informative either. But then judicial elections are rarely well-informed.

Given his name recognition and the money he's raised in the race, Mr. Kraft may yet produce an upset. But the stakes are unusually low: He will face the state's judicial mandatory retirement age within three years of donning the black robes anyway. Elections exist to weed out bad judges. There isn't one of those among the sitting judges — we can even take the challengers' word on that. Pick the top six.


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