ANNAPOLIS -- It's proving a long, tough road to Super Tuesday in Kent County on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Although issues and platforms have been hard to come by, six candidates -- most of them well-known in the county -- are waging a genteel but determined battle for a spot on the Circuit Court bench.
One candidate promises to be "the people's judge"; another says he wants to preserve the area's rural way of life. The incumbent is simply billing himself as "a man of judgment."
Judgeship contests often are low-budget, low-profile affairs, in part because legal issues don't often make good stump material and judges are ethically constrained from making pledges about how they would rule on specific cases.
But Maryland's tradition of judicial electioneering seems to be changing.
In Baltimore and in rural areas such as Kent County, judicial candidates are increasingly in tough election battles. As a result, with the state's March 8 primary looming, judges more frequently are turning up on the traditional political circuit of bull roasts, Rotary luncheons and political fund-raisers.
Critics of judicial elections, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Chief Court of Appeals Judge Robert C. Murphy, say it's unseemly and potentially compromising for judicial candidates to be soliciting support and contributions.
That's particularly true, they say, because many of the people who contribute to judgeship races are lawyers who have business at the courthouse.
This week, the General Assembly will begin consideration of a constitutional amendment that would do away with election contests for Circuit Court judges -- by requiring merely that judges stand for reelection by running against their records, without opponents.
Although the bill is for the first time being sponsored by the governor, it's certain to be as controversial as it has been in past years.
Given an unusual alliance of rural and black legislators opposing it, its chance of success is by no means assured.
"It should be very close," said Del. William S. Horne (D-Talbot), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a longtime supporter of the proposed change in the way the state's 109 circuit court judges are chosen.
Neither district court nor appellate court judges face contested elections in Maryland.
Murphy, for years an advocate of changing the system, said he has become even more concerned about the propriety of contested judicial elections in the wake of payoff scandals in the Chicago courts and reports of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions given by Texaco and Pennzoil Co. to Texas judges who stood to hear a suit involving the two companies.
While there has been no such scandal in Maryland, Murphy said, "the mere perception of a judge soliciting money from people who appear before him raises obvious concerns."
But those who oppose the change said they see nothing sinister about elective politics or forcing judges to actively defend their records. Thirty other states have some form of judicial elections.
"There's a healthy element to judges stepping out of their chambers and taking off the black robes and meeting the public," said Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Three years ago, a similar bill was filibustered to death in the Senate, and, although there has been a substantial turnover in membership in the 188-member General Assembly since then, a similar coalition of black, rural and independent-minded legislators threatens to kill the bill again.
In some rural areas, choosing a judge is one of the most important local political decisions a voter makes.
In Baltimore, there has been heightened interest in judicial races in recent years as more black lawyers have challenged white incumbents on the bench.
Some Republicans, such as state Sen. Howard A. Denis, a Montgomery County lawyer, also oppose the change.
Denis said he believes the Schaefer administration may be pushing the measure as a "thank-you present to the Court of Appeals" for its ruling last year that prohibited a referendum on Schaefer's cherished plan to build two stadiums in downtown Baltimore.
"I just don't see any evidence that the lawyers are being shaken down for campaign contributions or election support," Denis said.
He said proponents of the measure, including the state bar association, want to "change the system to benefit the elitists."
"This is what it's all about, that's what you hear with nods and winks and shakes of the head. Its been going on since blacks started getting elected," he said.
Administration officials argue that such reasoning rests on the misconception that the current system has enabled blacks to win election in significant numbers.
Since 1956, they note, only three blacks have unseated white incumbents. There are 10 black circuit court judges.
Under the current system, circuit court judges must stand for election the year after they are appointed by the governor.
If they win, they serve for 15 years before having to face election again. Other candidates are free to run against them.
The proposed change in the system would require judges to stand for retention elections only, with no opposition allowed.
A judge would face such elections the year after being appointed or in the next general election, and at subsequent 10-year intervals.
The governor's proposal would give the state Senate the right to confirm judicial nominations, something it does not now have.
Passage of the constitutional amedment would require a three-fifths vote of the legislature and the approval of a majority of state voters in the November election.
State Sen. Decatur W. Trotter (D-Prince George's), chairman of the legislative Black Caucus, said elite white law firms already have too much influence in determining who gets appointed to the bench. He said elections give blacks a better shot at judgeships.
The caucus will oppose the bill, he said, because blacks and women cannot be certain of having governors in the future who will ensure that they are represented on the bench.
However, Schaefer is expected to sign an executive order this week that would increase the number of judicial nominating commissions around the state from eight to 13, and would require their memberships to reflect the ratio of women and minorities in their communities.
The governor makes judicial appointments from a list of nominees supplied by the commissions.
The commissions are composed of lay members selected by the governor and lawyers elected by bar associations.
The effect of such a change, administration officials said, would be the appointment of more minorities and women to the bench.
It would also give rural counties more of a say in who gets selected in their areas.
For example, Prince George's and Charles counties, which now share a nominating commission, each would have commissions of their own under the new executive order, giving Prince George's a chance to nominate more blacks and giving Charles greater control over its nominees, officials said.
A new nominating system may answer some of the objections to retention elections, but it won't solve Del. Ernest Bell's problems.
"We have one judge," said Bell, a Democrat who represents sparsely populated St. Mary's County.
"It's a tremendous honor, particularly in our county, to get elevated to that position," Bell said. "People guard very jealously their right to determine who that judge is."