In the 46 years that Circuit Court judges have been elected in Prince George’s County, only candidates vetted by a nominating commission and placed on the ballot by the governor have ever won a seat.
Rarely, a lawyer has launched an independent effort to wrest a spot on the bench from one of the nominees on the approved slate. So far, none has succeeded.
Two such challengers are competing in the state’s April 26 primary, turning what is normally a sleepy selection process into something more akin to a legislative race.
April Ademiluyi is running to unseat Circuit Court Judge Herman C. Dawson, who has been criticized for levying harsh penalties on juvenile defendants and approving settlement-purchase deals that critics say took advantage of the poor and vulnerable.
The other challenger is veteran politician Ingrid Turner, who dropped out of a crowded congressional race to compete for a judgeship, hoping to capitalize on her experience as a military lawyer and former member of the county council.
They are facing off against a four-person slate that includes Dawson and Judges Erik H. Nyce, Karen Holliday Mason and Dorothy M. Engel, each of whom received interim appointments to the bench by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in advance of the election to replace judges who had retired.
Before their appointments, the judges were vetted by a commission of attorneys and lay people that decides whether to send their names to the governor. Then they run in the next election. “It’s a rigorous process. You open yourself to questions about your work, your life, your finances, your temperament. All of it is exposed,” Mason, 57, said.
Because judicial candidates don’t register with a party, all six candidates will appear on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, in alphabetical order. There is no distinction on the ballot between judges on the slate and their challengers.
The top four vote-getters among Republican voters will appear on the ballot in November, as will the top four on the Democratic side. If the same four candidates finish at the top among both parties, all four will win 15-year terms.
“It’s complicated, but it’s kind of like any political appointment where the governor appoints and the people confirm,” said Maurice Simpson, a law student and president of the Prince George’s County Young Democrats.
Of the four on the slate, Engel, 41, is the only first-time judge. The former county state’s attorney prosecuted homicide and violent crime cases for 15 years and served in the U.S. Army Reserve as an attorney.
“I’ve wanted to be a judge since I was 10 years old,” Engel said, when a family friend first took her to a courtroom. “I asked, ‘Who is that person?’ pointing to the judge. The response was, ‘That’s the person who makes it fair.’ ”
Mason previously served as a District Court judge, presiding over drug and mental health cases. Before that, she was a prosecutor and family magistrate.
Nyce, 56, spent his career in and out of public service before being appointed to the District Court. He was also legal counsel to the county’s Board of Elections. Nyce has applied eight times for a judgeship, interviewing with three different governors before being appointed.
All are campaigning for the first time. Judicial ethics limit what opinions they share with voters, so they rely on the slate committee, which raises thousands of dollars for the campaign, to do the politicking.
The slate has been attending events across the county, waving signs and hiring a campaign coordinator who helped elect Wayne K. Curry as county executive. Curry died in 2014.
“We are not really campaigners,” Nyce said while handing out sample ballots in Bowie. “Judges tend to stay out of the political arena, but we’re not taking anything for granted.”
Wearing a ball cap and bow tie, Dawson, 61, seemed at ease urging voters to choose him one recent day at the Curry Sports and Learning Complex in Landover. The veteran judge is as known for his bold personality as for his controversial approach to jurisprudence.
Every summer, Dawson hosts gatherings at his home to introduce young attorneys to the Prince George’s legal community, and he invites a who’s who of local politicos.
Dawson’s connection to the community runs deep. He set up mentoring programs for troubled youths and started a summit on teen-dating violence in the county.
“He kind of set me back on a straight path,” said 23-year-old Jonathan Freeman, who robbed a Bowie home in 2009. Dawson assigned him to community service after learning that the teen was an avid tennis player. Freeman spent the summer teaching the sport to others, and later, at Dawson’s suggestion, played for Alabama State University — the judge’s alma mater. “He gave me a second chance.”
But public defenders say Dawson’s tendency to give punitive sentences to offending juveniles verges on abuse. His actions away from the bench also earned him a reprimand from the state: He was arrested in 2003 at a restaurant, where he was accused of disorderly conduct. He was later acquitted.
“Everything I’ve done has been to better my community and the young people coming into my court,” Dawson said.
A 2015 Washington Post investigation found that Dawson had approved 90 percent of petitions from companies to purchase structured-settlement payments that in many cases took advantage of victims of lead poisoning.
One lawyer who brokered those deals in Prince George’s, Anuj Sud, also donated $1,000 to the judge’s slate campaign account in March. The court has since implemented reforms, and Dawson no longer presides over the cases.
“I came in, reviewed the file and if the petition complied with the statute, I granted the request,” the judge said in an interview, adding that he did have a few concerns. “In hindsight, I probably would have looked at them closer.”
But that was enough to embolden challenger Ademiluyi to run against the judge’s slate — a risk few lawyers take for fear of retribution. “It’s time for Herman Dawson to go,” she said. “I was outraged of all the things he has done while on the bench,” she said. “Things like that, it hurts me deeply.”
The 35-year-old intellectual-property and real estate attorney initially applied to the judicial nominating commission but withdrew and opted to run in the election.
The daughter of African immigrants, the Prince George’s native graduated from George Mason University’s law school. She began practicing eight years ago, and after opening her own firm, she has focused on helping homeowners with foreclosures.
Turner, a former Prince George’s County Council member, wants to reform the judicial system. “We need an eye toward rehabilitation and becoming more of a problem-solving court,”she said.
Turner, 52, was running for Congress when she learned about the court opening. The retired military attorney quickly changed gears.
For 20 years, the Naval Academy graduate served as legal counsel to admirals, administrative units and sailors. But she has little experience in local courts. She returned to Prince George’s after her 2006 retirement and was elected to two terms on the county council.
Turner’s detractors say the politician is simply seeking secure employment— the job pays about $154,000 a year — after she was term-limited and dropped out of the congressional race.
But Turner says she is running to educate voters that they have a choice when it comes to the judicial system.
“In 1986, they didn’t want women at the academy. Let alone a black woman,” she said. “When I ran in 2006 for County Council, they said I wouldn’t win because I wasn’t in the politician pipeline. But the community rallied around me and told me I belonged.”