A coalition of Maryland's black and conservative state senators embarked on the session's first filibuster today, hoping to kill or delay passage of a bill that would end contested elections for the state's circuit court judges.
Introduced by Sens. Margaret Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery), Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's) and John Pica (D-Baltimore), and endorsed by Gov. Harry Hughes, the bill would end the current practice of allowing challengers to run against circuit court judges in the first scheduled election after their appointments.
The bill would require both circuit court and district court judges to run against their own records each 10 years. It also would require the governor to appoint a judicial selection commission, whose members would serve with Senate approval. There is now a similar commission, but it only serves when the governor chooses to call it.
Hughes and other supporters of the change have argued for years that judges should not be forced to participate in the hurly-burly of the political arena, that judges are placed in the awkward position of having to accept contributions from the people who practice before them, and that the qualities needed to be a good politician are rarely the same as those needed to be a good judge.
"Politicians don't make the best judges," said Miller, head of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "You get people who are good at backslapping, people who are good at glad-handing, when what you want are people who are trained in the law, who are going to be even-handed and impartial . . . . "
But the black senators, as well as Republicans and other legislators, argue that contested elections allow blacks and other minorities a way to break into a system that traditionally has been controlled by an elite legal establishment.
State Sen. Clarence Mitchell (D-Baltimore), reading from an editorial written last year by his late father, civil rights activist Clarence Mitchell Jr., said, "This is not a black issue, this is an issue of any group denied access to the bench." He said the current system provides for a "mix of people" on the bench, which serves justice best.
Some white senators who oppose the bill had an added incentive to help their black colleagues -- their need for support on an expected filibuster over abortion later this session. Conservatives are expected to filibuster in an effort to kill language that would liberalize rules on state Medicaid funding of abortions. Blacks in the Senate, who are strongly in favor of liberalizing the funding, have agreed not to vote to end debate on that issue in exchange for conservatives' support for continuing the filibuster on the judges bill.
Mitchell said he made the agreement because "I don't think it abortion is as critical an issue as our right to preserve the leverage that the electoral process provides us in the selection of judges."
Traditionally filibusters are most effective when they occur late enough in the session to endanger the passage of other bills whose sponsors begin to lobby for a resolution to the conflict. Mitchell said he is using the filibuster to focus attention on the issue. As a result, he protested earlier in the day when Senate President Melvin Steinberg (D-Baltimore) said he would bar television cameras from the floor during the debate to preserve "decorum." Steinberg later relented, however, after protests from Mitchell and reporters.
This year's bill is broader than a bill ending contested elections that was considered last year but killed in a House of Delegates' committee. This year, however, the bill's chances of passing are considered greater because Miller, a member of the Senate leadership, is one of the sponsors.
The measure needs the votes of 29 of the Senate's 47 members to pass, since it is an amendment to the state constitution.
The Senate recessed at 11:20 tonight by prearrangement, and the filibuster was scheduled to resume at 10:30 a.m.