Judges’ names appear low on ballots, below presidential candidates, below those running for Congress and Senate and below those running to be Baltimore’s next mayor and councilpersons — all races that are more recognized in the national and local news media and are arguably on the radar of the general public.
Most judges are appointed by the governor and then have to run in the next election cycle. In the upcoming election, Circuit Court Judges in various judicial jurisdictions around the state are running to serve 15-year terms.
There are six sitting Circuit Court judges in Baltimore City who are up for election. While the judges went through an extensive vetting process that includes a lengthy application, background investigations and a number of interviews with several levels of government and law organizations, challengers can bypass this entire process and run in the election, as two challengers are doing in Baltimore City.
In Baltimore County, two sitting judges, Kathleen Cox and Keith Truffer, are running unopposed. But the six sitting city judges, who campaign and raise money together, caution voters that the other candidates have not been vetted and gone through the rigorous process that they did, while their challengers argue that they are being vetted by the voters. Others think judges shouldn’t be elected.
“It’s a ridiculous thing we do,” said Donald Norris, director of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Judges should be impartial interpreters of the law. They shouldn’t have to go out and raise money, they shouldn’t have to go out and advertise for themselves, they shouldn’t have to campaign.”
Norris also guesses that only a small percentage of voters even know who the judges are, let alone their records, since a tiny fraction of the population actually casts votes for the lower sections of the ballot.
“It’s hardly even an exercise in democracy. It’s an exercise in a very tiny fraction of voters determining the outcome of important elections,” he said.
To become a Circuit Court judge, one must first fill out an extensive application that details his or her personal life and educational and professional background. Applicants are then interviewed by about a dozen of Maryland’s minority and specialty bar associations, who make recommendations to the local judicial nominating commissions, which are made of lawyers and non-lawyers. The commissions also review, investigate and interview applicants. Those commissions send their recommendations to the governor’s office, which then reviews, investigates and interviews applicants. The governor then makes appointments to the court.
It’s hardly even an exercise in democracy. It’s an exercise in a very tiny fraction of voters determining the outcome of important elections.
— Donald Norris, director of the school of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County
The sitting Circuit Court judges running for re-election for 15-year terms are Shannon Avery, Audrey Carrion, Michael DiPietro, Wanda Keyes Heard, Cynthia Jones and Karen “Chaya” Friedman, the first female Orthodox Jewish judge to be appointed to the Circuit Court. Judges Carrion and Heard are running for their second 15-year terms. Their challengers are public defender Todd Oppenheim and Baltimore City District 1 Councilman Jim Kraft.
“[The challengers’] educational background hasn’t been reviewed, their professional background hasn’t been reviewed, their temperament hasn’t been reviewed. It’s just a name on the ballot that no one has ever had a chance to investigate or look at,” Friedman said at a recent Baltimore Jewish Council meeting, where she spoke along with Judges Avery and Jones. “The six of us have been extensively interviewed and investigated and collectively have a tremendous amount of experience.”
Oppenheim, who has been at the public defender’s office for 11 years and now works in the felony trial division, is running against the very judges he appears in front of.
“I think that in being a judge, I could also have an impact on the system and do things differently,” he said.
Oppenheim’s website lays out a four-point plan, which includes reforming Baltimore’s bail system, protecting residents from unlawful search and seizure, ending Baltimore’s war on drugs and making civil equality a basic right.
Friedman criticized Oppenheim for making statements about issues he can’t exactly change as a judge. She and her five colleagues cannot campaign in that way since they are bound by judicial ethics.
“[Our opponents] can make all these big statements that we are not permitted to make,” Friedman said.
But Oppenheim defends his plan, saying that a judge can use discretion within the law to address some of the issues. While he acknowledges that the sitting judges went through a painstaking process to get appointed, he believes the ultimate vetting process happens when talking to voters.
Kraft, a lawyer for 35 years who was elected to the City Council in 2004, agrees, and said he thinks there are still politics involved in the vetting process. As a white male who is very active in the Democratic Party, he’s not sure a Republican governor or the minority and specialty bar associations would recommend and appoint him. And since he’d turn 68 the summer after he’d take the bench — Circuit Court judges have a mandatory retirement age of 70 — he thought running for the bench was the right thing to do. He thinks his experience in seeing how laws affect the everyday lives of people as well as bringing diverse parties together to settle difficult situations gives him good background to sit on the bench. (He served as a public defender in 1980s, and his private practice focuses on family law and criminal law.) In addition, Kraft has around $122,000 in a campaign fund, according to a January report.
While Norris said it’s possible a well-financed opponent could make a difference in the election if they got voters’ attention, he could not think of an example in which judges in good-standing were voted out of their positions.
“Although in theory it is ‘democratic’ to let the people weigh in on the selection of judges, when the people don’t vote and a tiny fraction do and therefore control [the election], it’s not democratic at all,” he said.