Judicial elections in Maryland are usually pretty sleepy affairs. Unlike some states, we don’t have pure elections for circuit court judges, instead opting for a system whereby judges are appointed by the governor based on recommendations by a series of local nominating commissions. Those chosen by the nominating process, however, must stand for election to a 15 year term, and they can be challenged by any qualified candidate (if you’re a member of the bar, you can run).
For the most part, nobody runs against the nominated candidates, and on the rare occasions when someone runs, they almost invariably lose in the primary. I can’t remember the last “outside” judicial candidate to win, and historically, the only place where they’ve had any sustained record of success is in Baltimore City, but not so much in recent years.
This year, three renegade candidates successfully qualified for the November ballot, one each in Baltimore City, Anne Arundel County, and Prince George’s County. In the end, the three face varying odds, from little chance to strong chance. In fact, I’m pretty sure former CD4 candidate Ingrid Turner is GOING to win based on last week’s results.
Here’s how it works. Because judge races are officially non-partisan, for the primary, every candidate is on the ballot in both the Republican and Democratic primary contests. If the same candidate(s) win both parties’ primary, the judicial election is over and the winning candidates are sworn in as judges.
But if there’s a different order of finish in one party than the other, then everyone who finishes in “winning” position in either party advances to November. In Baltimore City, for example, there were six circuit court seats up for election last week. In the Democratic primary, the six “sitting judges” (those named by the nominating commission and appointed by the governor) finished in the top six. Retiring City Councilmember Jim Kraft, who also ran in the election, finished seventh, with just over half the votes of the sixth place finisher.
But in the Republican primary (yes, there are Republicans in the City!), Kraft finished sixth, edging out Wanda Heard by 301 votes. So even though Kraft got more than 30,000 votes less overall than all six nominated judges, he’s on the ballot in November along with all six of the nominated judges. Does he have any realistic chance? Not unless he can vastly improve his performance among the dominant Democratic majority in the City. But he’s on the ballot.
A candidate with better odds is Anne Arundel attorney Claudia Barber, who, like Kraft, ran against a slate of appointed judges. Seven candidates ran for four seats and Barber finished fourth in the Democratic primary over Glenn Klavans, one of the four nominated judges, all of whom are Republicans. Barber, a Democrat, is also seeking to become the first African-American circuit court judge elected in Anne Arundel County.
How will Barber fare in November? Uncertain. Unlike Baltimore City and other large jurisdictions in Maryland, Anne Arundel is more evenly divided. In addition, there is a strong tradition of deference to the “sitting judge” notion on both sides of the aisle – Speaker Mike Busch and Senator John Astle both supported the sitting judges. But she’s got a vastly better shot than Jim Kraft in Baltimore. She needs to run a targeted campaign, encouraging her supporters to bullet vote solely for her.
The most likely candidate to succeed is Ingrid Turner in Prince George’s. She finished a surprising second in the dominant Democratic primary, only losing an outright win last week because she failed to place in the top four in the GOP primary by 565 votes. She is an overwhelming favorite to win a seat in November. I’ll have more on this race in the next day or two. There’s a lot going on here.
If you’re seeing some racial issues in the GOP primary vote in these judge races, give yourself a cookie. Kraft is white, the judge he edged out in the City is black. Barber is black, the four judges in Anne Arundel are white. Ingrid Turner is African-American, Erik Nyce is white. I cast precisely zero aspersions here on any candidate – it just so happens that historically, GOP voters in Maryland have a hard time accepting minority candidates in judicial races. Montgomery County voters will remember the 2002 challenge against our first black judge, DeLawrence Beard. Beard won in the end, but it was that race in which I got sucked into state and local politics for the first time. More on this history coming up soon.