On new judges, civic duty and the fragility of democracy | COMMENTARY

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., left, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, right, speak after Republicans objected to certifying the Electoral College votes from Arizona, during a joint session of the House and Senate at the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

We’ve come long way from the all-white, all-male judiciary that looms large in portraits on the walls of Baltimore County’s ceremonial courtroom, where the investiture ceremony was recently held for Susan Chambers Zellweger to the District Court for Baltimore County.

A hundred lawyers and judges, a dozen family members or so, and a couple of politician types attended to watch Ms. Zellweger, a longtime public defender, be sworn in. The speakers that moved for her investiture all had high praise for her abilities as a trial lawyer, her respect for all litigants, her knowledge of the law and human nature, her patience with difficult clients and witnesses, her unflappability and her compassion. Indeed, everyone who walks into her courtroom will be better off for this appointment.


After the laudatory speeches, the pictures and formalities, the crowd segued to the main event: the cocktail reception at a local Italian restaurant. Lawyers enjoy these celebrations, they allow us to shed the mantle of advocacy, to step away from our deadlines and out from behind our desks. We told war stories and traded gossip — about the next judge to retire, the judge who really should retire and the best candidate for the next available seat. It’s all a needed respite from the intellectual and emotional grind of the practice of law.

Amid the clatter of glassware held up in toast and a bit too-loud laughter, it occurred to me that there was another, more nuanced celebration going on here: The investiture of a new judge is the culmination of an orderly civic process, proving in a quotidian but critical way that this part of our system of government works. Our process to pick a judge for the district court begins with a detailed application, which is thoroughly vetted by the Judicial Nominations Commission, comprised of lawyers and laypeople appointed by the governor. The commission reviews the applications; interviews the candidates; reviews recommendations from lawyers, judges and the public; and then nominates a few candidates for each seat to the governor. The governor’s staff then does its own review, and the governor interviews the nominees and then makes a final selection.


While considering all of the good on this day, I had a moment of icy chill. Despite all of the happy faces, the prospect of a talented new judge taking the bench, the fellowship and the good feeling that arose from recognizing that the gears of orderly political and civic life were working, the Big Lie persists. I recalled the politicians who actively promote the false notion that our recent presidential election was stolen, the lack of interest and public participation in the electoral process, the inability to agree on basic facts, and the widespread transmission of misinformation and outright lies, all of which threaten the stability of our unique experiment with democracy.

Democracy is a fragile tent that protects us from the ill winds of authoritarianism and dictatorship. It is supported by the lines of a healthy and robust civic life: honest leadership, factual reporting by the media, enforcement of the rule of law, earned trust in law enforcement, and the constant, vigilant participation of citizens as agents responsible for the delicate balance of government. As the fabric of democracy’s shelter wears, we inch closer to political chaos; history reminds us that a government in chaos is fertile ground for authoritarianism. If in January you looked away from the video of the Capitol insurrection, if it was too vulgar, too violent, too sickening, to watch the Capitol desecrated, then it is now time to try again to take in the full view.

Unless we act to protect and maintain of our system of government by doing more than sniping on the internet; by being critical listeners and thinkers; by promoting honest, intelligent and compassionate people to positions of leadership, our courthouses and statehouses will look less like the grand and beautiful courtroom we saw during Ms. Zellweger’s investiture, and more like the Capital on Jan. 6.

Stephen B. Awalt ( is an attorney in Towson.