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Judges defend campaign letter

August 14, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

Two Washington County Circuit judges say there is nothing wrong with an attempt to seek election support from attorneys and clients through a letter that a political watchdog official calls "judicial extortion."

Judges Donald E. Beachley and W. Kennedy Boone III said there is nothing legally or ethically wrong with the July 31 letter that urged local attorneys to ask current and former clients to vote for the Beachley/Boone slate.

Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said, "This is the worst sort of betrayal of the honored status that the public is generally inclined to give judges."

The one-page letter, written on Beachley/Boone campaign letterhead, reads in part, "Some of you indicated that your office will do a special mailing while others have suggested putting a notation on regular correspondence to the client. Additionally, telephone calls to clients asking them to 'talk Kennedy and Don up' among family and friends would be helpful!"

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The letter was signed by five attorneys, including the president of the Washington County Bar Association.

Skullney maintained that the letter is a veiled threat that attorneys who do not support the Beachley/Boone slate might be subject to retribution from the judges many of them deal with on a routine basis. And clients could feel like they must support the judges or risk losing their representation, she said.

"It's judicial extortion," said Skullney, who is a lawyer.

Boone and Beachley strongly denied that allegation. They said they would have no idea which attorneys voted for them, and the attorneys would have no idea who their clients supported in the election.

"From an ethical standpoint, there's nothing wrong with it," Boone said.

They said the letter was sent, unsolicited, on their behalf by the group of signing attorneys. They said they knew about the letter and its contents before it was sent.

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge William W. Wenner, who chairs the state's Judicial Ethics Committee, said he spoke with Beachley about the letter this week and doesn't believe it violated any legal or ethical code.

"I told him I didn't see anything wrong with it," Wenner said.

Both Beachley and Boone were appointed to the county Circuit bench last year by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and are running for the two $96,000-per-year judgeships up for election.

Also running is Hagerstown attorney Gregory C. Bannon, who had no comment on the letter.

"I don't tell them how to run their campaign and I don't expect them to tell me how to run mine," Bannon said.

M. Lynn Williams, the Bar Association president whose name is on the letter, said she sees nothing wrong with asking for campaign support from attorneys and clients.

"In fact, a lot of our clients have been asking about the judges already," she said.

She said supporting or not supporting Beachley and Boone has no bearing on how attorneys are treated by the judges or how clients are treated by their attorneys.

"It's not a condition of representation or anything like that," Williams said.

Skullney, who read a copy of the letter, said seeking support from attorneys and clients lowers the judiciary into the same murky ethical waters the public usually reserves for other elected officials.

"It's worse than politics as usual because there can literally be a guillotine hanging over the heads of the lawyers and clients - a legal guillotine," she said.

Skullney added: "The only thing that's lacking in this letter is having cigars jammed down their throats and having their backs slapped in a dark, smoke-filled room."

The judicial race is bipartisan, meaning all three candidates' names will be placed on both the Democrat and Republican ballots in the Sept. 15 primary election. The top two vote-getters in each primary will go on to the general election.

The top two vote-getters in the Nov. 3 general election will win full 15-year terms in the bench.

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