ANNAPOLIS – Attorney General Douglas Gansler wants to keep political spending from tainting Maryland Circuit Court elections, but critics say Gansler’s solution threatens to give too much control over judicial appointments to the governor’s office.
Gansler’s proposed constitutional amendment would replace the current system of contested elections for Circuit Court judges with retention elections, which would involve only “yes” or “no” votes for sitting judges.
The proposal has received increased attention in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision that struck down limits on corporate campaign spending. Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. has said the ruling could lead to the effective buying of judges by corporations.
The attorney general brought his proposal Tuesday to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where he said retention votes would eliminate the need for electioneering and campaign donations that would threaten impartiality.
Under Gansler’s plan, judges would first be appointed by the governor, then face a retention vote in the next election cycle and every 10 years that followed. If a judge is not retained, the process would begin again with another appointment by the governor.
Currently, circuit court vacancies are filled by gubernatorial appointees who must then win their full 15-year terms in the next election cycle, at which point they can be challenged by another candidate.
Gansler’s proposal would bring circuit court elections in line with those of the appellate courts, where judges already face a system of retention elections.
“The main thing that I’m getting from my constituents is that this transfers the power from the people to the governor,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel.
“The people (wouldn’t) get to put forth their person,” Simonaire said. “Under the current system, they get to…under the system (Gansler’s) proposing, the governor and only the governor has the final decision.”
Gansler argued that holding retention elections every 10 years rather than contested elections every 15 offers voters more control over the process.
The attorney general also said the retention system would help minorities get better representation on the circuit court bench.
“We do not have any minority circuit court judges on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland, despite the significant amount of minorities that do live in those areas,” Gansler said.
“It’s the only campaign you’ll see where someone will put their opponent’s picture on their literature,” Gansler said. “‘Here’s the African-American who’s your judge, I’m the guy that’s not African-American and I’d like to be your judge.’ Of course, they’re successful.”
Defense attorney and former Circuit Court judge William “Billy” Murphy Jr., who is African American, spoke against the amendment, arguing that blacks and women were not being appointed to the District Court, which does not require elections.
Removing contested elections from the Circuit Court system would have little effect on the minority presence on the bench, Murphy said.
The increased control over judicial appointment by the governor and the judicial nominating committees would also lead to a lack of transparency in the process, Murphy said.
“What do you want in this state? Do you want open politics where people know what the story is?” Murphy said. “Or do you want behind-closed-door politics?”
Gansler’s proposal got a high-profile endorsement last week from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, an outspoken critic of judicial elections.