City voters will be asked to choose from a list of six sitting judges, an outgoing councilman and a public defender to rule on cases involving homicides, lead paint poisoning, divorce, medical malpractice and a variety of other issues in Baltimore Circuit Court.
The judges up for election — Shannon E. Avery, Audrey J.S. Carrion, Michael A. DiPietro, Karen Chaya Friedman, Wanda Keyes Heard and Cynthia H. Jones — are running on a single ticket. Challengers are James B. Kraft, who has represented Southeast Baltimore on the City Council since 2004, and Todd Oppenheim, who has worked as a public defender in Baltimore for more than a decade.
Six of the eight candidates will be elected. The election of judges is nonpartisan, so the same eight names will appear on both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots April 26.
The six who receive the most votes from each party will compete in November for 15-year terms. Third-party candidates or write-in challengers could also appear on the general election ballot.
Andrew I. Alperstein, a defense attorney and longtime chairman of the committee to elect judges in Baltimore County, said the election has significant consequences for the public. He worries that some voters might select candidates alphabetically, or based on names they are familiar with, because the judges' race receives less attention than others.
Alperstein cautioned voters to be aware of the ways a Circuit Court judge can influence their freedom, money and custody of children.
"You're more likely to have a judge affect your life than the president or Congress," said Alperstein, whose firm contributed $750 to the sitting judges' campaign. "The court is where people resolve important disputes in their lives."
The governor selects new circuit judges to fill vacancies on the court from a pool of candidates deemed qualified to serve based on experience, temperament and other characteristics. The judges must run in the first general election following their appointment.
The sitting judges are bound by ethical standards that limit how deeply they can wade into politics, but they had $183,000 available for the campaign, according to finance records filed last month. Kraft reported $122,000 on hand, much of it from his previous runs for council. Oppenheim had $2,100.
Kraft, 66, decided to forgo the appointment process because he would have to face election eventually, and also questions the motivations that can influence a governor's decision to appoint. He said he brings a different perspective than the sitting judges, including 35 years practicing law and negotiation skills developed as a councilman.
He previously worked as a public defender and participated in approximately 100 jury trials. Kraft said his experience as a negotiator on the council will help him develop plea deals and resolve civil cases before trial.
"I have spent the last 12 years in community meetings, in the neighborhoods, in the streets, and I have seen how the decisions of the courts affect people in their daily lives," Kraft said. "I have seen how people react to how they are treated in a courtroom."
Oppenheim, 37, received national attention for an opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times in November questioning the "disproportionately low" bail set for officers involved in Freddie Gray's arrest and death last year, and the speed with which their cases were scheduled for trial.
He said the judicial system needs to work better for all people, and he wants to force change by using judicial discretion to "validate or invalidate" police practices.
He contends the appointment process involves favoritism. "If the process is so effective and fair, then why doesn't the system work?" Oppenheim said.
Heard and the five other judges up for election say they want to use their experience to serve city residents.
"We can promise we're going to be fair," Heard said. "We can promise we're going to follow the law. We can promise that we're going to do the best we can do. If we're not familiar with an area of law, we can promise that we're going to study it."
Heard, 58, a judge for 17 years, is the second-most-senior judge on the city's Circuit Court and says her rulings have rarely been reversed by the state's higher courts. She previously worked as both a prosecutor and public defender.
Carrion, 57, previously served as a District Court judge, spending a total of 19 years on the bench.
"It does matter who your judge is in deciding a case," Carrion said. "The vetting process is the process that allows the citizens to be comfortable and have the assurance that people they are voting for have the qualities, the demeanor and the experience that is required to be a judge."
Avery, DiPietro, Friedman and Jones were all appointed to the Circuit Court in 2014.
Avery, 49, previously worked as a District Court judge, a public defender and assistant attorney general.
DiPietro, 55, is a former assistant state's attorney, assistant attorney general and assistant U.S. attorney for Maryland.
Friedman, 44, was a District Court judge before her appointment to the Circuit Court. She also served on the Orphans' Court and is a certified mediator.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Jones, 50, previously worked as an assistant state's attorney and as a Maryland Legal Aid lawyer in Cherry Hill, representing residents of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City in rent court.
Baltimore voters will elect six circuit judges this year. The six sitting judges are campaigning as a slate, and two candidates are challenging them. All will listed on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots in the April 26 election.
Sitting judges: Shannon E. Avery, Audrey J.S. Carrion, Michael A. DiPietro, Karen Chaya Friedman, Wanda Keyes Heard and Cynthia H. Jones
Challengers: Baltimore City Councilman James B. Kraft and Todd Oppenheim, a public defender