The Problems Implicit In Electing Trial Judges

by Page Croyder
Trial court judges have an enormous impact on our justice system. They decide what evidence comes in and stays out. Who gets custody of children. What sentence a criminal should receive. Because they have such wide discretion in so many situations, appeals from their decisions may have little chance of success, even if a citizen can afford an appeal.
     In Maryland, Circuit Court judges serve for 15 years. Removing a biased or incompetent judge is nearly impossible, as Baltimore County found out. Yet voters are given next to no information about judges when it comes time for them to vote. No evaluations of judicial performance exist. The Judicial Disabilities Commission, which handles complaints about judges, keeps its proceedings secret, unless a judge agrees to disclosure.
     And the media either find the task of covering the courts too labor intensive, or, in the case of The Sun,abdicates their responsibility. The Sun,for example, editorialized over a year ago that it hoped all the sitting judges would be elected. It didn’t matter that a sitting judge had just declared a defendant guilty before a trial began, or that several of the judges had yet to be appointed. The Sun doesn’t like judicial elections, so advises voters to vote for all the sitting judges.
     There may be valid reasons for not electing judges. But until we develop a meaningful way to evaluate their performance, elections are the only means of safeguarding the public interest Yet nearly every incumbent politician, as well as the Maryland Bar Association, does its best to discourage opposition. They endorse “the sitting judges”--whoever they are and whatever their performance--automatically. Why? To protect their stake in the selection process.
     It is, after all, the influence of the bar and the politicians that lead to nomination and appointment by the governor. To elect their candidate, or to preserve their influence in filling the next vacancy, they play ball and endorse the slate. They do this even when they don’t know the names of all the judges, and worse, when they privately admit that some judges have proved unsuitable.
     This year, some of the “9 Trusted Judges” (as they call themselves) have not earned trust. They lack either an acceptable level of competence or professionalism. People who work daily in the courthouse (including many of the other judges working in Baltimore City) know this. Yet the sitting judges are holding hands and running as a team, asking the public to vote all of them in.
     It’s a case of politics and personal ambition over the public interest.
     Politics do not belong in the courtroom. Judgeships should not be dispensed as political favors when ability or proper judicial temperament is lacking. The public deserves a competent, professional, hard-working judge in every courtroom. Our system of blindly electing judges who do not meet this standard along with those who do is not acceptable.
     That is why I am running: to tell the public what no one else will. To give them a meaningful choice in the voting booth.
     And to offer them a judge not only with a reputation for exceptional competence and integrity as an attorney, but with a quality that is most essential in a judge: the courage to stand up for what’s right, whatever the political pressures.

This opinion piece was written by Page Croyder at the request of this newspaper. Ms. Croyder, a Hampden resident, graduated with honors from the University of Maryland in 1977, earned a law degree from The George Washington University in 1980, and a M.S. from Columbia University in 1986. She served four years as an officer and attorney for the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1987 she joined the State’s Attorney’s Office in Baltimore City, where she is a Division Chief. Ms. Croyder is the only judicial candidate required to take a leave of absence to campaign.

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This story was published on Sep. 2, 1998.