Mary­land should use a merit sys­tem, and not elec­tions, to se­lect cir­cuit court judges.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - The writer, a Democat, rep­re­sents the 15th Dis­trict in the Mary­land House of Del­e­gates.

The Post re­cently opined that law­mak­ers should “take a hard look at how judges are se­lected” [“A higher bar for Md. judges,” ed­i­to­rial, June 19]. In­deed, it is time Mary­land aban­don con­tested elec­tions for cir­cuit court judges and use the same merit sys­tem in place for our ap­pel­late court judges, as his­tor­i­cally en­dorsed by The Post.

The gover­nor would ap­point cir­cuit court judges from a list sub­mit­ted by a broad-based, rep­re­sen­ta­tive nom­i­nat­ing com­mis­sion. The ju­di­cial ap­pointee would then be sub­ject to con­fir­ma­tion by the state Se­nate, fol­lowed by a re­ten­tion elec­tion at the next gen­eral elec­tion af­ter ap­point­ment and then stand ev­ery 14years for a re­ten­tion elec­tion on his or her record. The es­teemed Com­mis­sion on the Fu­ture of Mary­land Courts rec­om­mended this process for cir­cuit court judges in 1996.

The pri­mary dif­fer­ence be­tween Mary­land’s cur­rent process and the process rec­om­mended above is that to­day, af­ter go­ing through the rig­or­ous ap­point­ment process, cir­cuit court judges can be chal­lenged in the elec­tion by in­di­vid­u­als who, in most in­stances, have not gone through the vet­ting process. In­stead they sim­ply pay a $50 fil­ing fee to ap­pear on the bal­lot.

Con­tested ju­di­cial elec­tions are costly and of­ten flawed with mis­lead­ing advertising by can­di­dates and ad­vo­cacy groups. For the most part, vot­ers are left with lit­tle sub­stan­tive in­for­ma­tion with which to eval­u­ate can­di­dates for ju­di­cial races. The bal­lot doesn’t in­di­cate whether the in­di­vid­ual listed is a sit­ting mem­ber of the bench.

The Post crit­i­cized Mont­gomery County’s le­gal com­mu­nity for “clos­ing ranks” around Judge Au­drey Creighton to “help her win elec­tion to a 15-year term” even though ques­tions about her al­leged be­hav­ior were “trou­bling.” The le­gal com­mu­nity ac­tu­ally sup­ported the “sit­ting judge prin­ci­ple.” As a prac­tic­ing fam­ily law at­tor­ney who rou­tinely rep­re­sents clients in the cir­cuit court, I also sup­port this prin­ci­ple. For more than 40 years, it has en­sured that Mont­gomery County has only the most qual­i­fied judges on the bench.

Un­der the sit­ting judge prin­ci­ple, the gover­nor first ap­points cir­cuit court judges only af­ter these men and women have sub­jected them­selves to rig­or­ous scru­tiny and ex­am­i­na­tion by a 13-mem­ber nom­i­nat­ing com­mis­sion es­tab­lished by ex­ec­u­tive or­der of the gover­nor. Each can­di­date com­pletes a vo­lu­mi­nous, com­pre­hen­sive ap­pli­ca­tion and sub­mits ad­di­tional ma­te­ri­als as re­quested.

The com­mis­sion then ob­tains other in­for­ma­tion from the can­di­date’s per­sonal ref­er­ences, the At­tor­ney Griev­ance Com­mis­sion, judges, crim­i­nal jus­tice agen­cies and other sources. Fur­ther, the com­mis­sion places no­tices in at least one news­pa­per iden­ti­fy­ing the ap­pli­cants and invit­ing writ­ten and signed com­ments. Once all of the in­for­ma­tion on a can­di­date has been com­piled, at least 10 mem­bers of the com­mis­sion must in­ter­view the can­di­date.

Each can­di­date is also vet­ted by a num­ber of bar as­so­ci­a­tions, each of which sub­mits its rec­om­men­da­tions to the com­mis­sion and the gover­nor.

The process is not per­fect, and im­prove­ments could be made. But the sit­ting judge prin­ci­ple is not a sin­is­ter scheme. It rep­re­sents solid, ra­tio­nal pol­icy.

In the spe­cific case of Creighton, nowre­tired, the Com­mis­sion on Ju­di­cial Dis­abil­i­ties was as trans­par­ent as it could be. When an agency in­ves­ti­gates dis­ci­plinary, child abuse, em­ploy­ment, crim­i­nal, griev­ance, dis­abil­ity and other such mat­ters, it must bal­ance due process and pri­vacy rights of the ac­cused and vic­tims or af­fected third par­ties. The right ques­tion is whether the process is fair, andthe test is whether the process worked.

The most im­por­tant and long over­due change in Mary­land would be to se­lect cir­cuit court judges by merit in­stead of by elec­tion. This would pro­tect our com­mu­nity and guar­an­tee that our judges have the high­est qual­ity of char­ac­ter, in­tegrity, ju­di­cial tem­per­a­ment and ed­u­ca­tion.

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