Last month, sitting judges in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Cecil Counties faced challengers in contested judicial elections in Maryland’s September 14 primary election. In Baltimore and Cecil Counties, the sitting judges were victorious, locking in their seats on the circuit court, but those in Anne Arundel County face a second election on November 2. MSBA supports Laura Kiessling and Ronald Jarashow, the sitting judges in Anne Arundel County, in Maryland’s General Election.
While MSBA supports the sitting judges, it does not support the process of contested judicial elections for Maryland’s circuit court judges. Contested judicial elections are costly. They threaten the independence and impartiality of Maryland’s Judiciary, erode public confidence in the courts and push sitting judges into the fray of politics. When challenged, jurists already appointed to the bench must invest considerable time and money to campaign while they juggle judicial responsibilities and heavy court dockets.
Across the country, millions of dollars are now spent on judicial elections (see “Judicial Elections Prove Costly in Nation”) and this is fueling a public perception that “justice is for sale.” So, many states are seeking judicial reforms and the merit selection of judges is one of the most popular. This judicial selection method is gaining momentum across the nation. MSBA has been seeking the merit selection process for Maryland’s circuit court judges for 30+ years.
Reform: Merit Selection in Maryland
For the last three decades, MSBA has consistently supported the merit selection of judges in lieu of contested elections. Merit selection promotes judicial accountability and places the most qualified judges on Maryland’s bench. Judicial candidates undergo a rigorous interview, evaluation and selection process by the Maryland Judicial Nominating Commission, MSBA’s judicial appointments committee and those of local and specialty bar associations to assess their judicial skills and temperament.
With the current selection process, any attorney age 30 or over who is admitted to the Maryland Bar, has resided in the state for five years and has lived in the specific circuit for six months can challenge a sitting judge in a contested election. Frequently, these contenders have not been through the extensive judicial screening process sitting judges must undergo prior to appointment. In addition, challengers may speak freely, make election promises, offer rhetoric that may be inflammatory or misleading and even attack the records of sitting judges, who must honor the Judicial Canon of Ethics and remain silent.
MSBA supports the removal of politics from Maryland’s judicial selection process and opposes judicial contests on political, campaign, judicial independence and monetary grounds. Contested elections pose ethical dilemmas for sitting judges. The Judicial Canons prohibit sitting judges from directly soliciting campaign funds, although their non-judicial opponents do not operate under these restrictions. Moreover, attorneys who appear before judges in their courtrooms may contribute to the campaign, creating the appearance of and casting shadows of impropriety.
Judicial contested elections are confusing to the public. Most citizens do not know who the sitting judges are and may vote for circuit court judges simply on the basis of alphabetical order and party affiliation rather than judicial qualifications. It is believed some sitting judges have even lost their seats because they were at the wrong end of an alphabetized listing on the ballot. Voting polls indicate that party labels and ballot positions have become more significant than judicial qualifications, an unfortunate basis on which to select circuit court judges.
With the results of the primary election fresh on the minds of Maryland’s legal community, the cost of judicial elections is clear. Judicial contests are costly to appointed circuit court judges who campaign by night and administer justice by day, costly in the public’s diminished confidence in the courts and costly to judicial independence.