In three of the four courthouse races -- for Montgomery County state's attorney, clerk of the Circuit Court, sheriff and register of wills -- Democrats are running unopposed or facing only pro forma opposition. Only the clerk of the Circuit Court, Molly Q. Ruhl (D), faces a serious challenger in paralegal and former court clerk Robert A. Gunter (R).

Gunter, a former courtroom clerk, has said the clerk's office needs to be modernized and to provide better access to services by staying open evenings and Saturdays. He advocates moving the clerk's office to the Web-based electronic filing system implemented in some federal courts.

Ruhl, who has served as the county's chief clerk since 1994, said that she began exploring the possibility of electronic filing last year but that the county and state budget crisis made funding impossible. She hopes to begin a pilot program for electronic filing, which would ease paperwork for lawyers and residents, by 2004.

This year, she oversaw the transfer of the county's troubled juvenile court from the District Court to the Circuit Court, a move mandated by the state legislature after complaints that the District Court moved too slowly and had a pattern of violating defendants' right to a speedy trial. Improving the juvenile court response is a top priority, she said.

In the other courthouse races, State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D) is running unopposed and spending most of his time this political season campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

The outspoken -- some say brash -- young prosecutor was frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for Townsend. When that didn't happen, Gansler continued to volunteer locally for the woman he calls "a very good friend," standing in for her at two candidate forums with GOP gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"Most of my political attention and resources have been devoted to helping Kathleen Kennedy Townsend get her message out to the voters of Montgomery County," Gansler said. "I was fortunate not to have an opponent. I have the luxury to have time to devote to other Democrats. My major and prime concern is Kathleen."

Gansler, a former D.C. federal prosecutor, was elected in 1998 after defeating sitting prosecutor Robert L. Dean -- whose Montgomery County career was sideswiped by a sex scandal -- in the Democratic primary.

Some observers have speculated whether Gansler's vociferous support of Townsend could lead to a high-profile job in her administration if she is elected. Gansler has never masked his political ambitions, saying publicly that he wants to run for state attorney general in four years. But he says he does not want a job in the Townsend administration and would serve his full four-year term if elected.

Register of Wills Joseph M. Griffin, who was first elected in 1998 and has worked in the office for nine years, is running for a second term. Griffin's Republican challenger, Terry Bork does not appear to be running an active campaign; she didn't respond to voters questionnaires or to telephone calls.

Democrat Sheriff Raymond Michael Kight is running unopposed for his fifth term in office. The sheriff oversees 170 deputies who are responsible for serving civil papers, providing courthouse security and transporting prisoners.