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O’Connor in Maryland to support bill to end contested elections for judges 

Prince George’s County Circuit Judge William D. Missouri shakes hands with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor after Wednesday’s discussion of SB 833.

Prince George’s County Circuit Judge William D. Missouri shakes hands with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor after Wednesday’s discussion of SB 833.

ANNAPOLIS — A proposal to end contested judicial elections in Maryland received the strong endorsement of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who said Wednesday that raising money and running for office are inconsistent with the concept of an independent judiciary.

O’Connor added that campaign contributions give the appearance that a judge is beholden to the donor, not the law.

“We’ve had enough experience to know it doesn’t work today,” O’Connor said of the popular election of judges.

The 79-year-old former justice addressed a capacity crowd in the joint hearing room of the Legislative Services Building, in advance of next week’s hearing in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee of Senate Bill 833. (The measure is cross-filed as House Bill 1385.)

O’Connor praised as “a very good move” the bill’s proposed constitutional amendment, which would remove the requirement that circuit court judges face a contested election within two years of their gubernatorial appointment and every 15 years thereafter. Instead, they would face an uncontested “retention” election every 10 years, as their colleagues do in the appellate courts.

Retention elections do not involve electioneering, O’Connor said; instead, they permit the people to simply decide “is this a judge I want to keep, yes or no.”

O’Connor was in Annapolis at the invitation of Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who is spearheading the constitutional amendment and organized a panel of other proponents.

“We politicize our judges by having elections,” Gansler said. “We want our judges to be free from political influences.”

Supporters of judicial elections — none of whom were on the panel — counter that contested elections serve as a much-needed check on the governor’s appointment power, which may be equally or more political; and that the people should be allowed to choose judges who reflect their collective views on justice.

But Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, a sponsor of SB 833, called it unseemly and improper for judges to campaign for office, as senators do.

Lawmakers should be responsive to the “passions of the people” and thus be required to run for election and re-election, Raskin said. Judges, by contrast, must have “independence of mind and judgment” and should not be concerned with winning a popular vote, added Raskin, a panelist.

“We want legislators to be accountable to the people,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. “We want judges to be accountable to the law itself.”

O’Connor, Gansler and Raskin were joined on the panel by former and current circuit court judges, all of whom said the current system turns judges into politicians and gives the appearance that they will favor campaign donors in their rulings.

“The only people who are interested in fundraisers for judges are attorneys,” said Court of Special Appeals Judge Alexander Wright Jr., who was twice defeated in contested elections after appointment to the Baltimore County Circuit Court. Wright said he has recently seen judicial fundraisers in Maryland that advertise for $1,000 per seat.

“There is an expectation that money equals access,” added former Howard County Circuit Judge Donna H. Staton, who was defeated within a year of her appointment to the bench in 1995. (Staton is a member of this paper’s Editorial Advisory Board.)

William D. Missouri, administrative judge for Prince George’s County Circuit Court, has successfully run for re-election twice but hopes the law is changed so he does not have to run a third time.

He recalled the time a lawyer approached him and said he had recently been at one of the judge’s fundraisers. Missouri said he suspected the attorney’s reason for telling him that was not just to make casual conversation.

“If I don’t know what that reason is, I shouldn’t be a judge,” Missouri said.

O’Connor, who has spoken against contested judicial elections since retiring from the bench, pointed to two significant election-related decisions by the Supreme Court within the last year.

In June, the court held in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company Inc. that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice should have recused himself from a case involving a large campaign donor.

But in January, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission found that restrictions on corporations’ campaign spending were unconstitutional violations of the freedom of speech.

O’Connor said Citizens United is “going to filter down” to judicial elections.

“I think it’s going to be a concern,” she said.