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Judicial Candidates Wage Unusual Combative Contest

As appeared in the May 2024 issue of the Country Chronicle

By Michael Ruby


Probably the most hotly contested and controversial race on Baltimore County’s May 14 primary ballot is one few people know about, few could tell you anything about or few even care about.


But unlike any other race in the upcoming primary, it could be decided before — and without — a single vote being cast in the November 2024 general election.


Not because one candidate stands out more than another or one party is better organized than another or because someone spent more money than the others. But simply because of the first letter of a person’s last name. Studies show voters have a pronounced propensity to select candidates at the top of a list of names on a ballot over others that follow alphabetically.


That makes the current race to retain the four Baltimore County circuit court sitting judges interesting and unpredictable because an “outside” challenger — who will be the second name listed of five on the ballot — is asking voters to select him for a 15-year term on the bench instead of the four judges recently appointed by Maryland governors to fill vacancies due to retirements.

 

Top Vote Getters

During the upcoming primary election, voters in both parties will be asked to ‘vote for up to 4” candidates in the “Judge of the Circuit Court District 3” category, according to sample ballots available on the Baltimore County Board of Elections web site.


Candidate names will include: Michael S. Barranco, Robert N. Daniels, Patricia DeMaio, Marc A. DeSimone, Jr., and James Rhodes, in that order, according to the sample ballot. The five candidates will appear on both Republican and Democratic ballots during the primary election with the top four vote getters in each primary moving onto the November 2024 general election.


If the same four candidates are selected by both the Republicans and Democrats, then the race has effectively been decided since only those four names will be included on the November 5 general election ballot for the four open positions.


But if four different names are the top vote getters for one party but not the other — say candidates #1, #3, #4 and #5 by one party and candidates #1, #2, #3, and #4 by the other — then all five names again will be listed on the general election ballot with the four receiving the most votes in November gaining 15-year terms on the circuit court bench.

 

Unfit for the Role

In what so far has been an unusually combative contest pitting the usually staid and objective arbiters of the law, outside challenger Robert N. Daniels (www.daniels4judge.com) is contending voters should not be fooled into confusing appointments with anointments. Especially since three of the four sitting judges — DeMaio, DeSimone and Rhodes — were elevated to the bench just a little more than three months ago by Gov. Wes Moore. Barranco was named to a circuit court judgeship in 2022 by then-Gov. Larry Hogan but not in time to be included on the 2022 ballot.


That short time on the bench makes a mockery, contends Daniels, of political campaign literature calling for retaining the three men and one woman appointed because they have the “experience we need to keep” and possess “the judgment we can trust,” according to fliers authorized by the Baltimore County Sitting Judges campaign committee (www.sittingjudges.com).


Instead, Daniels says his “broad range of experience” as a family law practitioner, felony prosecutor and civil litigator for the state makes him the most prepared and equipped to serve on the circuit court bench.


Unlike his rivals who Daniels claims, in an uncharacteristically political posture by anyone running for a judgeship, are unfit for the role because they are: “anti-police,” a claim he makes against DeMaio who served with Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby; “a scholar out of touch with the people,” a charge he levels against DeSimone; and, someone bordering on recklessness following an incident with police after Rhodes brandished a firearm in public.

 

Under Attack

Daniels has his own baggage coming into the race, contend the sitting judges when speaking in public forums before community groups and political organizations. Daniels readily owns his history of foreclosure and bankruptcy in 2009, an experience he now is trying to spin as giving him first-hand knowledge into how people can have a run of bad luck and providing compassionate insights when ruling from the bench.


Other excuses or explanations have been offered by all the other candidates under attack. Yes, DeMaio did work in Mosby’s office but DeMaio claims she was not part of the team that prosecuted six Baltimore police officers for the death of Freddie Grey while in custody.

Gov. Moore proudly proclaimed how pleased he was to appoint a scholar to the bench, swears DeSimone, a professor for 17 years at the University of Maryland law school and also a litigator before the Maryland Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.


Rhodes defended his weapon-toting entanglement with police as protecting his son — along with a legally registered gun and a certified carry permit — from becoming a victim of road rage. He was cleared of any wrong doing.

 

No Track Record

Still, Daniels points out that for the first time in more than 20 years, the organization representing Baltimore County police officers are not endorsing any of the four sitting judges who are running for election in 2024. Why? Daniels implies it is because of the anti-police sentiment and lack of criminal trial experience of those recently appointed.

David Rose, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Lodge #4, which represents more than 3,200 current and retired police officers, said the organization took the unusual position of not endorsing the sitting judges or Daniels because not much is known about them.


“Three of the four judges were only recently named to the bench,” said Rose, “so they don’t have a track record of decisions made for us to properly vet them. And the other candidate [Daniels] is not a judge so we don’t have a sufficient history to review.”


The last time the Baltimore County FOP did not endorse a slate of sitting judges was after one of the appointees had ruled that fingerprint evidence, a mainstay of police work for decades, was not reliable.

 

Non-partisan Questionnaire

So if the Baltimore County police don’t think there’s enough information about the circuit court judge candidates to make an intelligent decision, then what’s a voter to do? Turn to the League of Women Voters, of course.


Thankfully for every election, the non-partisan League of Women Voters of Baltimore County publishes a “Voter’s Guide” to assist citizens preparing to vote. The guide provides invaluable information about such things as early voting dates and locations, where to find ballot box sites and when mail-in ballots must be postmarked. It also provides a Q&A forum for candidates running for office from President of the United States to Circuit Court Judges Circuit 3. Answers to the non-partisan questionnaire provide the candidate’s response as received — typos and misspellings included — for voters’ consideration and comparison.

On page 13 of the 2024 Primary Election Voters’ Guide (available in most libraries and online at lwvbaltimorecounty.org), are the Baltimore County circuit court judge candidates’ responses — limited to 500 characters — to such questions as:

• How does your experience prepare you for the duties of this judgeship;

• How would you address the problem of large numbers of minority youth being imprisoned;

• What are your views on diversion programs for behavioral problems and substance abuse;

• What are the greatest challenges facing Maryland Circuit Courts and how should they be addressed?

 

Mandatory Retirement

According to the LWV of Baltimore County Voters’ Guide, Maryland is divided into eight judicial circuits. Circuit court judges preside over trials involving major civil and serious criminal cases such as those requiring a jury trial.


When there is a vacancy on a circuit court bench, usually due to mandatory retirement at age 70 of all judges, a nominating commission reviews the qualifications of applicants for the open judgeship. The committee then recommends several names to the governor who usually appoints a person from that list of nominees to fill the judgeship. Each newly appointed judge must run for office at the first election that occurs at least one year after the vacancy occurred. Sitting judges also must run for re-election after serving a full 15-year term.


Attorneys who are members of the Maryland Bar may challenge a newly-appointed or sitting judge running for election. All judicial candidates’ names appear on both the Democratic and Republic primary ballots with the top vote getters advancing to the general election. There is no term limit for a circuit court judge who currently receives an annual salary of $194,433 per year.

 

‘Obviously Flawed’

Because the knock-down, dragged out, name-calling pedestrian battle for the Baltimore County circuit court seats is being conducted before community groups and through campaign literature mailed to thousands of voters, the legal profession is getting a proverbial black eye about how judges are selected, appointed and elected, contend local community and political leaders.


And that’s without any scrutiny of the Baltimore County Sitting Judges campaign committee which funds the roadside signs, literature (some of which has been characterized as “cartoonish”) and other election expenses bankrolled by contributions from lawyers and law firms that “are keen on fostering amicable relations with the judiciary,” claimed Jolie McShane, immediate past president of the Republican Women of Baltimore County, in an open letter to members. ”This system is obviously flawed and in need of reform.”


As of its latest filing on January 2024, the Baltimore County Sitting Judges committee had more than $360,000 on hand, according to Maryland State Board of Elections records.

“As voters, stakeholders and concerned citizens, it is imperative to scrutinize and advocate for changes that uphold the integrity and impartiality of our judiciary,” said McShane. “Only through concerted efforts to address these shortcomings can we ensure a fair and transparent electoral landscape, where justice truly prevails.”

 

Much-Needed Changes

This year’s bruising battle over the Baltimore County sitting judges has only highlighted the urgency for much-needed changes, said Maryland State Senator Chris West (R-42), who is also a practicing attorney and well versed in election law.


That’s why West, who represents north central Baltimore and eastern Carroll counties, says he will introduce legislation in the 2025 General Assembly to change how judges are elevated to the bench. West says he will maintain the nominating process and selection by the governor but no longer force the appointees to go before the electorate.

Instead, West said he will require an affirmative vote by 80 percent of the state Senate before a nominee assumes a seat on the bench.


The 80 percent requirement is high enough, he contends, that a governor will be forced to appoint women, minorities and others who reflect the general composition of the jurisdictions being served, otherwise, confirmation will not be forthcoming.

West is quick to point out that neither Governor William Donald Schaefer or Governor Martin O’Malley appointed any Black judges to Baltimore City courts during their terms in Annapolis, despite the current election process.


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