Along with the titanic presidential struggle and other lesser but still lively contests, Maryland voters across the state will decide on Tuesday an issue of singular significance -- to Baltimore.
Appearing on the ballot as Question 2, is an effort to untangle a remarkably complex city court system that since 1867 has operated in six sections, each of them a political fiefdom with its own elected clerk and patronage jobs. After decades of commissions, committees and legislative attempts -- all futile -- consolidation of the six courts into one is finally before the state's voters.
From the Eastern Shore to the Washington suburbs to the mountains of Western Maryland, the future of Baltimore's incongruous city courts hangs in the balance.
While a single circuit court serves each of Maryland's 23 counties, the 23 judges of Baltimore city are chosen for what is known as the Supreme Bench and are then assigned to the Superior Court, the Court of Common Pleas, the City Court, The Criminal Court and two Circuit Courts. Critics say the result is confusion, inefficiency and duplication of personnel.
The reform effort to change it all has taken on racial overtones, since three of the six clerks are now black, reflecting the city's racial makeup. In recent years, some blacks have regarded consolidation as a measure to deprive them of political spoils long denied.
Most of the vocal opposition has been won over with a series of compromises that guarantees the jobs of those already on the payroll and holds out the promise of affirmative action programs in the merit system to come.
"Grandfathering is the price," said Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, who actively supports the measure. "We've neutralized the racial problem. It's in a perfect state of balance. Everybody is in harmony."
Not quite everybody. Among the dissenters is Saundra Banks, clerk of the Court of Common Pleas with 20 patronage Workers who issue vendor, marriage and trader licenses and also handle a few civil cases. Banks, who is black, said she intends to run for the single "superclerk" job to be created if consolidation passes. However, she said she will vote against the measure.
"There's a 50-50 feeling it won't pass," she said. "I couldn't possibly support it."
Even if consolidation passes, it won't be implemented unless voters approve a complicated companion measure, which will appear as Question 3 on the ballot. The measure would abolish a citizen's automatic right to move a civil case from one court to another without having to prove prejudice by the judge.
That right of removal has been in legal limbo since the state's appeals court ruled five years ago it denied equal justice to city residents, whose cases could be transferred to another one of Baltimore's several courts before being shifted to another locale.
This ballot question also has racial overtones, according to Murphy. In Baltimore city, he said, some lawyers representing insurance companies who fear the verdict of black juries have often moved their cases elsewhere. Murphy said, however, there is no evidence of active opposition to the change.
Voters throughout the state will also confront the names of judges when they enter the polling booths.