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Kurt Schmoke: Competitive judicial elections a relic of history | READER COMMENTARY

The Court of Appeals building in Annapolis where the state's highest court has the final word on legal matters. Appointees to the court must be approved by Maryland voters on an up or down vote, not through competitive elections. (Paul W. Gillespie/Baltimore Sun).
The Court of Appeals building in Annapolis where the state's highest court has the final word on legal matters. Appointees to the court must be approved by Maryland voters on an up or down vote, not through competitive elections. (Paul W. Gillespie/Baltimore Sun). (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Attorney Stephen Awalt describes the investiture of new District Court Judge Susan Zellweger as " the culmination of an orderly civic process” (“On new judges, civic duty and the fragility of democracy,” July 28). He is absolutely correct in that assessment. However, what should be noted is that if Judge Zellweger had been appointed to the state circuit court rather than the district court, that orderly process description would not apply. Why? If she were appointed to the circuit court she would have to run in a competitive election in 2022 against any lawyer in the county who could raise enough money for the filing fee. Because of politics, not policy, retaining a seat as a circuit court judge in Maryland is subject not to an orderly process, but to all the challenges involved in our election process.

Circuit court judges must campaign in the same fashion as council persons, delegates and senators, even though we hold as one of our highest values that our judges are above politics. These judges are forced to solicit campaign contribution, the bulk of which come from lawyers, many of whom will appear before those judges in judicial proceedings. How do you think a client feels when he or she learns that opposing counsel made a substantial contribution to the judge’s election but his or her counsel chose not to do so?

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We have four levels of judges in Maryland: district court, circuit court, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals of Maryland. With respect to three of the four levels, citizens have a say regarding the continuance of service of the judges by voting in non-competitive elections, that is, elections in which the judges run on their record not against competing lawyers. Only at the circuit court level are judges required to run against competitors. That process is a relic of history and the time to change that process is long overdue.

If we are to achieve what Mr. Awalt’s commentary suggests — protect judiciary to protect democracy — we should end the competitive election of circuit court judges.

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Kurt L. Schmoke, Baltimore

The writer is president of the University of Baltimore.

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