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Letter flap proves politics and judges shouldn't mix

August 23, 1998

Tim RowlandWatching judicial candidates grovel for votes among the common folk produces the same painful wince that might crease your face if you chanced upon the Queen Mum playing marbles. Some things are beneath dignity.

And for a lofty, black-robed jurist to be forced into passing out bumper stickers to oil-stained rototiller mechanics at some pedestrian event where the main platters consist of grease-soaked pig and corn soup - well, let's pull the curtain on that scene.

The Constitution provides for two-thirds of government to be answerable to the masses, and the remaining third to keep an eye on the shenanigans the masses-endorsed candidates produce. Judges are the parents, there to gently nudge us kids back into line when we act out beyond reason.

It's not in our best interests to open the branch of reason up to the electorate any more than a kid should be able to vote out his parents if they won't let him take the car to Atlantic City for the weekend.

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So of course in Maryland, exposing judges to a vote is exactly what we do. It's limited exposure to be sure, but whenever there's a contested judicial race, it's the one that tends to spark the most interest. The stakes are high, since basically the winners will sit as long as they wish.

Washington County has three good candidates for two seats - Gregory Bannon, Donald Beachley and Kennedy Boone. Beachley in particular seems to get high marks, based on his experience and record as a former federal magistrate.

(Unfortunately there is no female candidate. A number of abused women and friends of abused women have told me they fear appealing to the local court system because it is packed with men - justifiably or not, they believe they won't receive justice in an all-male system. Washington County could use a woman on the bench.)

Beachley and Boone now fill judicial vacancies under the appointment of Gov. Parris Glendening. The two judges are sharing campaign signs and literature, asking voters to pick them as a team. That doesn't mean a person can't vote for Bannon plus one of the two sitting judges, although understandably neither Beachley nor Boone is loudly broadcasting that fact.

The conventional wisdom of the Hagerstown establishment appears to be that Boone - who, fairly or unfairly, racked up a few negatives because of his service with Pat Wolford at The Maryland Theatre, when the board stonewalled the public over the theater's finances - can ride Beachley's coattails to victory.

The blue Beachley/Boone signs are thick in the North End, while Bannon's yellow and black is more apparent in the southern half of the county. It should all make for a neat, interesting and tidy election full of hearty competition and free of controversy.

Enter the lawyers.

It's fun, in a dismal sort of way, to watch the lawyers have virtual heart attacks at the thought that they may fail to back a winning candidate.

To that end, a group of attorneys working hard for Beachley and Boone sent out a letter on Beachley/Boone campaign stationery that said "...telephone calls to clients asking them to 'talk Kennedy and Don up' among friends would be helpful!"

Now if judges were more experienced at running campaigns, this never would have happened. Oh, the letter would have gone out all right, but not on Beachley/Boone stationery and the two judges would have maintained a "plausible deniability" to prior knowledge of the letter.

To the credit of Beachley and Boone, they didn't try to hide behind the people who actually wrote the letter. They acknowledged they knew about the letter and approved its contents. Further, state officials say the content of the letter was neither illegal nor unethical.

Fair enough, I suppose. Yet it shows that some things that are ethical and legal just aren't right.

It's one thing to call up fellow attorneys, friends and family and "talk Kennedy and Don up." But to my mind it's quite another to pressure a client for support, particularly one who has business before a judge.

I do not for a second believe Boone, Beachley, or any other judge I know would treat anyone differently based on their support or non-support in an election. But not all clients before the court understand that.

These aren't commissioners' seats where the most serious aspect of control is whether they pave your road when it's needed. A judge holds sway over one's liberty and property. And if a lawyer "talks up" a judicial candidate to a client, the implicit concept is that you will get a lighter sentence or get a larger share of the furniture if you support the judge. Conversely, an unsophisticated client may believe non-support would lead to more jail time or the loss of the house to the ex.

I don't believe this particular letter should too significantly influence anyone's opinion of Beachley or Boone. All told, it was probably little more than a clumsy piece of politicking.

What I do believe the letter should do is reinforce the belief that politics has no place in the judiciary. Judicial bad apples in my experience are few and far between. There may be an occasion every so often when a public vote would improve the bench, but those cases are rare and certainly do not merit exposing judges to the whim of the masses on a wholesale level.

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