The Sun

Black before the bench and white sitting on it

by Norris West The Baltimore Sun

September 29, 1996 Page(s): 4B
Section: METRO
Length: 895 words

Record Number: BSUN475047


VISIT HOWARD county's courthouses, and you'll see
African-American male defendants parade through the criminal justice system in numbers disproportionate to the county's black male population.

Indeed, most committed the crimes that got them there. Their excuses cannot justify the misdeeds, but their backgrounds and explanations can reveal stark differences between those on the path to career criminality and those who still can be saved.

Turn your glance toward the bench, and the complexion changes. Eight of the nine judges in District and Circuit Court are white. The only face of color belongs to Judge Donna Hill Staton, one of the two judges appointed to Circuit Court last year.

Sadly, no African American males are on either court.

In a colorblind county, this would not matter. Race and gender would be irrelevant in discussing appointments and elections to public office, and political hacks would have the luxury of dwelling on other subjective factors.

But judicial appointments are slaves to the county's past, one in which women and blacks were not even considered for seats on the bench for 129 years.

A breakthrough came last year with the appointment of Hill Staton and Judge Diane O. Leasure, the Circuit Court's first woman. Three black male lawyers were hoping to strike another blow for diversity by applying for the current vacancy on District Court.

One of those applicants, Walter F. Closson, noted that Howard's courts have never had a male African-American judge and aspired to be the first. But his and others' hopes for a change in this status quo, at least for now, were dashed when the state Judicial Nominating Commission for Howard County rejected all three black male applicants.

The commission instead sent a list to Gov. Parris N. Glendening that includes five white men, one white woman and one black woman. Immediate criticism came from the county's Women's Bar Association and the African American Coalition of Howard County, which complained that the list lacked diversity.

The coalition urged the governor to reject the list and to order the commission to start the long application and interview process from scratch. The commission cannot add new names, as was suggested, because it sent the maximum seven nominations to the governor.

Criticisms of the list are on target, and critics should continue arguing for District and Circuit courts that reflect Howard's demographics. But there are reasons the governor should not reject the current list.

It was no small matter when Mr. Glendening threw out a list of nominees last year that had no black candidates. Candidates for the judiciary undergo a long screening process -- bar associations and the nominating commission peruse lengthy applications that detail the amount of time candidates have spent in court, the quality and outcome of cases handled, questions about character and personal information.

Then, the extraordinary action of discarding that list and selecting a new commission to assemble another list of nominees was required. At the time, the county's bench had yet to have a black judge, and the commission's nominations would have ensured that it remained that way.

The list of nominees for the District Court appointment this years comes in a different environment. Last year's appointments, particularly Hill Staton's, brought some desperately needed diversity to the bench. The selections were truly historic, giving the county its first female and first black Circuit Court judges. And while not much of an improvement, the current list is not the shutout of African-American candidates that stained the process last year.

This commission, or future ones, must do a better job. I have trouble with the rejection of three black males, and would caution the commission not to give such short-shrift next time to a segment of the population that too often appears before the bench and not at all behind it.

In a related subject, those who argue that the quality of Howard Circuit Court declined when two judges took the bench last year is either unfamiliar with the new judges or has a distorted view of the court's past.

Twin breath of fresh air

Judges Leasure and Hill Staton are building impressive reputations as strong jurists in legal circles here and around the state. Clerks and sheriff's deputies praise them as a twin breath of fresh air in the staid old courthouse, and their talent and temperament have won them a favorable reviews elsewhere, gaining notice in the state's high courts.

The county certainly has had stellar jurists -- the late Judge James MacGill and retired Judge J. Thomas Nissel roll from the lips of long-time court observers. But the county's all-white, all-male judiciary of the past largely has had an undistinguished history.

Observers say the two appointed judges are jurists who have improved the bench with their hard work, perhaps making this the best Circuit Court panel the county has ever had.

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

Pub Date: 9/29/96

Copyright 1996 The Baltimore Sun Company