The Sun

When white guys lose, the game isn't fair

by Norris West The Baltimore Sun

October 20, 1996 Page(s): 4B
Section: METRO
Length: 882 words
Biographee: COLUMN

Record Number: BSUN477855


IT'S TIME FOR Howard County to take a good look in the mirror and see whether its pretty face is only a makeover or an ugly reality.

A mirror might reveal blemishes when it reflects on the county's response to the appointment of two Circuit Court judges and on the ensuing campaign challenging the appointees.

Howard County advertises itself as a fair-minded community that believes hard work and playing by the rules are keys to success.

It's a wonder nobody's sued for false advertising yet.

The judges' race uncovers the naked truth: Many countians believe in rules only when those rules produce the results they want.

Through the years, rules have placed good and mediocre judges on the bench. All the judges were white men. And there were few gripes about the system.

A question of timing?

A surge of complaints about the rules came only after Diane O. Leasure was appointed the Circuit Court's first female judge and Judge Donna Hill Staton was named its first African-American jurist. After 129 years of satisfaction, reactionaries decried the rules, the system, the choices.

Only the most gullible would believe this to be coincidence.

Now the reactionaries throw up one smoke screen after another to mask their visage. They have called the appointed judges soft on crime, outsiders and inexperienced.

They've said the judges are too close to Gov. Parris N. Glendening or County Councilman C. Vernon Gray. And they've tried, without success, to find flaws in their rulings from the bench.

They rallied to support the sour-grapes challenge of District Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Jonathan Scott Smith.

These reactionaries feign shock that the appointments were political, hoping voters are naive enough to believe previous judicial appointments were not. Or that Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith didn't use all the political muscle they could garner.

When the smoke clears, it is easy to see these reactionaries' real problem: change.

They say the public deserves tough judges who eschew politics, are part of the community and are experienced. But they're not describing their guys.

One smoke screen at a time

Let's take one smoke screen at a time.

Tough on crime: Judge Gelfman and Mr. Smith are running cable television ads asserting they are tough on crime. This is demagogic and false.

Mr. Smith is a skilled defense lawyer. The last time I saw him in action, he was using his superior legal skills to get a lenient sentence for a man convicted of sexually assaulting a minor. Ask the girl or her family if Mr. Smith is tough on crime. It must be noted that Mr. Smith was just doing his job as a defense lawyer. But he can claim intolerance of crime when it suits him and tolerance if it helps his client. To call himself a crime-fighter is utter hypocrisy. Unfortunately, Judge Gelfman associated herself with this demagogy.

Political connections: All four candidates were among those recommended by a judicial nominating commission, and the governor had to pick two of them to fill vacant seats. All four turned to their political contacts, hoping to get an edge. Lawmakers and other powerful public figures wrote or called the governor on their behalf.

Mr. Gray is just one of many public figures who contacted the governor on behalf of a judicial candidate. The challengers certainly would not have had any qualms with the system's political nature had their connections delivered appointments for them.

Outsiders: All four candidates have long ties to the community, if not to the legal establishment. Judge Leasure is not exactly a stranger to the area. Although her law practice was based in Prince George's County, she has been a Howard County resident for 16 years, and lives with her family in a community west of Ellicott City. Judge Hill Staton grew up in Columbia and lives in Clarksville. She is a graduate of Wilde Lake High School, where she was a scholar-athlete.

Not even Pat Buchanan could argue that people with such deep roots are not legitimate citizens of their community.

Experience: From the start, this has been an overblown non-issue. Experience is a factor for a judicial candidate, but is not nearly as important as intelligence, temperament and wisdom. To the extent that experience is key, judges Hill Staton and Leasure are the only candidates who have served on the Circuit Court bench.

Fairness in Howard?

Judges Hill Staton and Leasure both have impressive backgrounds. Judge Leasure's resume is sparkling, becoming a top litigator for a prominent law firm. Judge Hill Staton attended Princeton University and George Washington University Law School, clerked for a federal judge and was a partner at a major Baltimore firm.

African-Americans and women are told that society is fair-minded and rewards will come if they follow the rules. Judges Hill Staton and Leasure have done their part. On Nov. 5, will voters do theirs?

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 10/20/96

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company