The main issue in Howard County's election for Circuit Court judge this year is the election itself.

Former prosecutor Jo Ann Branche stood the county's legal establishment on its head when she announced that she is challenging Judge James B. Dudley for the 15-year post in Tuesday's primary. Election officials have found no record of a challenger's ever before taking on a sitting judge in Howard County, although challenges occur occasionally in Prince George's County and Baltimore.

Branche, 35, said she entered the race to turn around the "growing lack of trust and apathy in the criminal justice system here in Howard County."

Her candidacy "assures the community that they can be involved in the selection process . . . and take advantage of a right they have not used."

But Dudley said there is a good reason circuit court judges tend not to be challenged. They are appointed to the bench after an extensive review by lawyers and the governor, he said.

"If you are going to elect someone to a 15-year position, you want to make sure that person is qualified. I frankly don't know that my opponent is qualified because she has never been through the kind of process I've been through," Dudley said.

Dudley was appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to the District Court bench in 1988. He was elevated by Schaefer to the Circuit Court a year later.

Under Maryland law, circuit court judges must stand for election after being appointed.

At that time, a challenger can step forward.

Complicating the selection process is the fact that Branche and Dudley have cross-filed in the Democratic and Republican primaries. If each wins one primary, but not both, they will face each other again in the general election in November, said Barbara W. Feaga, chief clerk of the county Board of Elections.

In Howard County, the Circuit Court hears serious criminal and juvenile cases and decides civil matters involving more than $1,000. Circuit Court judges also hear appeals from the District Court and preside over civil or criminal cases in which one of the parties requests a jury trial.

The county's legal establishment has lined up behind Dudley. He has picked up an endorsement from Maryland State Trooper Lodge No. 69 in Howard County.

And he has received the nod of the 300-member Howard County Bar Association.

"It doesn't seem right that there should be an election," association Executive Director Janet E. Filtzer said. "Because it is so important that they remain impartial, judges should not have to go out and raise money and do the kinds of things other politicians do."

Dudley worked in the Baltimore City state's attorney's office from 1965 to 1972, the last two years as the chief of the trial division. He later moved to Howard County for a brief stint in the county state's attorney's office.

He then went into private practice and "did a little bit of everything, except tax and admiralty law," he said.

He said that though his record has been "thoroughly examined" as part of the judicial review process, "we have some doubts about {Branche's} record.".

He said he has been told Branche was considered a lackluster prosecutor and may have been fired from a law practice, accusations that Branche's former employers strongly deny.

Branche "was an able attorney" for the Baltimore state's attorney's office from 1984 to 1989, rising through the ranks to eventually try felony cases, said Baltimore Deputy State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy.

And she was not fired from the William H. Murphy Jr. law firm, according to Murphy.

"She left here on good terms," Murphy said, adding that he was "impressed with her presence and her strong depth of knowledge about people and the law . . . . She has an incredible sense of how to treat people."

Branche said she left the Murphy firm after a car accident forced her to spend time recuperating. She is trying to establish a practice in the county.

Branche, who received an endorsement from the Columbia Democratic Club, said the Maryland Constitution provides for contested judicial elections "to assure to the voters that the selection process meets with their approval."

She said she thinks the process may not be satisfying all voters. For instance, in Howard County it has yet to produce a woman judge.

As the county has grown, so has the diversity of people and problems that it confronts, she said, leading to concerns "over the way some people's cases are handled."

"I think the people will take very seriously their responsibility in choosing a judge," Branche said.