A proposal to take judges throughout Maryland out of political campaigning is back in Annapolis. It seems to come up each time the General Assembly convenes and to go down before the lawmakers adjourn. But it is a sound proposal, and it should be enacted in order to stop the debasing practice of head-to-head election contests for judgeships. Again, Gov. Harry Hughes is supporting the change, along with the state bar association and lawyers, judicial organizations and legislators who recognize that politics and campaign charisma are not good measures of a judge's competence on the bench.
Far better is the change being proposed: the "sitting judge principle" that applies in many other states. Voters would be asked whether they wish a particular judge to be retained on the bench. That constitutes a vote on a judge's qualifications and performance. If a judge were rejected, he or she would be out of office. The governor then would appoint a replacement, based on recommendations from a nominating commission.
The current system forces challenged judges to campaign. That means going around soliciting campaign funds, usually for two-party primaries and, as in one instance in Prince George's County, for the general election as well. In such a contest, the challenger can claim or promise anything, while the sitting judge, under the judicial code of ethics, must be prudent in making any statements or promises. If the selection process needs improvement, so be it; there are ways to change the makeup of the nominating commissions. If the legislature respects procedures aimed at attracting the best available judicial talent to the bench in Maryland, the members will support a vote on the constitutional amendment necessary to make this important change.