The Sun

Judicial campaign a study in strategy
2 operate from bench
2 take grass-roots tack


October 10, 1996 Page(s): 1B
Section: METRO
Length: 1518 words
Index Terms:
Howard County

Record Number: BSUN481515


In Howard County's judicial race, sitting Circuit Judges Donna Hill Staton and Diane 0. Leasure have opted to dress their campaign in judicial robes-a high-road strategy that carries rewards and risks.

Their opponents -- District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and attorney Jonathan Scott Smith-are running a grassroots campaign, knocking on doors and waving at motorists from the sides of highways. But Leasure and Hill Staton are running from the bench.

"I figure the best thing I can be doing is my job," Leasure said in an interview this week.

The advantages are clear: The sitting judges appear in television ads and campaign literature in the familiar black robes of the judiciary -- an effort to leave an enduring image in the minds of voters on Nov. 5.

But staking their campaign on their 11 months of experience on the bench also puts the two sitting judges in a fishbowl of sorts -- by inviting the two challengers and their supporters to take issue with the judges' rulings.

Some supporters of the sitting judges say privately they would like to see them campaign with more vigor and less judicial decorum. Even their own campaign officials acknowledge their strategy could mean they will be seen by fewer voters.

"It may cost them," said Lin Eagan, manager of the sitting judges' campaign. "This is who they are, however. They frankly, think the best way to prove who they are is doing the best job they can."

The sitting judges -- they are the first women to serve on the Howard Circuit Court and Hill Staton is the county's first black judge -- were appointed by Gov. Paris N. Glendening last fall, igniting a debate on the virtues of diversity vs. the virtues of legal experience. After a bitter campaign, Leasure and Hill Staton won the Democratic primary in March and the challengers captured the Republican ticket.

With the election fast approaching, Smith and Gelfman have been walking through neighborhoods. Gelfman plans to take off eight days from serving on the District Court to campaign full time.

But Leasure and Hill Staton have shied away from going door-to-door, instead attending private gatherings and making appearances at local functions. They said they do not plan to take time from work to campaign, other than an afternoon here and there.

One natural advantage of sticking to their jobs as judges is that every week a steady stream of voters is brought before them -- right in the county courthouse.

"My name is Donna Hill Staton and I am the judge presiding in the courtroom," Hill Staton said from the bench one recent morning as a group of 30 potential jurors filed into her courtroom to begin the jury selection process for a case. Dressed in her black robes and flanked by flags, Hill Staton -- as Leasure and the other three county circuit judges do at least once a week -- then spent 40 minutes talking with citizens as part of the routine process.

Sue Mangan, a claims representative with an insurance company who was in the courtroom for another case, said the potential jurors may carry the image of Hill Staton at the bench to the polls with them. "If you get your 10 minutes with the judge and the judge is nice to you you may vote for her," Mangan said.

In addition to courtroom contact, Leasure and Hill Staton talk roughly once a week to the prospective Circuit Court jury pools -- more than 100 residents at a time -- to explain the role of judges. The program was started by Circuit Judge Dennis Sweeney to help potential jurors -- pulled from voter lists and motor vehicle records -- feel more comfortable in the courthouse.

Still, the incumbent judges' advantage isn't necessarily automatic. One of the dismissed jurors said this week it will take more than the sight of the judge in robes to affect how he votes. "It's like a date. I've got to be with them a little longer," said Silas Ayer, an Ellicott City resident, as he left Hill Staton's courtroom.

Campaigning from the courtroom also leaves the judges vulnerable. In essence, it is a challenge to Gelfman-Smith supporters to find a reason they should be unseated -- and has opened the door to criticism of their rulings.

Some have risen to the challenge. Three letters -- two from one Gelfman-Smith supporter and a third from a woman who could not be located -- labeling the judges soft on crime and questioning sentences in three cases have been sent to local newspapers.

But a review by The Sun of two of the three sentences in question found they were in line with what other j judges were doing across the state. The author of the letter that raised the third case -- Fred Klonin of Columbia, who calls himself a Gelfman-Smith supporter -- could not identify the defendant in that case and hence it could not be identified.

In response to these letters, Hill Staton charged that her opponents' supporters are trying to stir baseless controversies.

"Anybody can say anything that's fed to them," Hill Staton said. "That's part of the campaign strategy -- to get people riled up about individual decisions."

Deborah E. Dwyer, a Columbia attorney who is heading the challengers' campaign, denied that. She said she was not aware of the letters and did not know their author But, she added, examining rulings is important.

"I think it's information the public needs to know," Dwyer said

Here are more details on the two cases in question:

* Dwyer -- and the letter writers -- criticized Leasure for allowing Bradley Matulevich, a former Oakland Mills High School football player, to attend college on a release program from the Howard County Detention Center after being convicted of participating in two beatings. Under the terms of his sentence, he spends his nights in jail and his days at school.

"I'm curious {how} after this guy commits a violent act a second time, college release is warranted," Dwyer said.

Sweeney initially approved the college release in November 1995 after he sentenced Matulevich to 18 months in jail in the first case. Matulevich was convicted of assault with intent to maim in a fight that left a boy temporarily in a coma. Sweeney later reduced the sentence to one year.

In August, Leasure sentenced Matulevich to another 18 months in jail in a second incident that occurred while he was awaiting trial in the first case. He was convicted of battery in the incident, which was less serious than the first, Leasure said. She said she was impressed with how well Matulevich was doing in college.

"I got criticized by a number of people who thought I was too harsh," Leasure said of the case. "Certainly there are situations where you can say, `How is this going to play politically?' I don't make decisions that way. I am going to do what is right in each and every case."

* Hill Staton's sentencing of an armed robber this summer also was brought up in a letter.

After receiving an eight-year sentence for four armed robberies in Montgomery County, Charles Jordan was convicted in Howard in the robbery of a North Laurel store of $100 at gunpoint. All the robberies took place the same night. Hill Staton sentenced Jordan to 10 years in prison, to be served at the same time as the other sentence -- essentially adding about two years to his sentence.

State's Attorney Marna McLendon said prosecutors argued for any jail time to be tacked on to the eight years, and Hill Staton's sentence was below average in length. But McLendon also acknowledge that prosecutors and judges often differ on sentencing matters.

According to state sentencing guidelines, Hill Staton's sentence fell within range. The guidelines call for a six- to 12-year term. The average prison sentence for an armed robber is 11 years, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

"I certainly would not characterize them as soft on crime," McLendon said of the two sitting judges. "That is an absolute mischaracterization."

Charles Wellford, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, said that the public often does not understand all the factors that go into sentencing.

"Without knowing all the facts that went into the decision and only knowing the offense, they may have concerns," Wellford said. "I don't think that level of complexity is reflected in the public record."

Hill Staton said such questioning goes with being a judge.

"Judges never win in these situtions because there is always someone who thinks you did not do enough and someone who thought you did too much," Hill Baton said.

But she and Leasure said they stand by their records.

"While others are out camaigning," Hill Staton said, "we are here doing the jobs we were paid to do."

Pub Date: 10/10/96

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company