Circuit Court

submitted by Ralph Watkins

Election of Judges – Maryland has an unusual process for choosing judges of Circuit Courts, the courts in which all jury trials are held.  For the past 50 years, Maryland governors have relied on Judicial Nominating Commissions composed of attorneys and others to recommend candidates for appointment to all courts.  While judges of the Supreme Court of Maryland, the Appellate Court of Maryland, and the District Courts are appointed by the Governor with confirmation by the state Senate, the judges of the Circuit Court are appointed by the Governor and are not subject to Senate approval. Upon appointment by the Governor, a Circuit Court judge takes office and begins to preside over cases, but must be elected by the voters in the next general election. In that election, any attorney who has been a member of the Maryland bar for at least 5 years can run against the appointed judge. These contested elections for Circuit Court judge are also unusual in that all candidates appear on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, but not on the nonpartisan ballots, so voters who are not affiliated with the two major parties are excluded from the first stage of the selection process.

The Circuit Court judge selection process has been subject to criticism for many years. In some instances, when there had been a pattern of failure to appoint African American or other minorities to the bench, there were successful challenges that led to a more diverse bench in some jurisdictions. In other cases, however, women and minority judges appointed by the governor were defeated by white male candidates. Thus, although contested elections can serve as a check on a governor’s abuse of the appointment power, they do not always serve this function effectively. Concerns have also been raised about the financing of judges’ election campaigns as the major contributors are lawyers who are likely to have cases before the judge during the election or shortly thereafter.  

For the last several years, legislation to eliminate contested elections for Circuit Court judges has been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly but has not passed. The Maryland courts and LWVMD have supported this legislation. Similarly, legislation was introduced to permit unaffiliated voters to vote for Circuit Court judges. To address these longstanding issues, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Maryland appointed a Judicial Selection Workgroup in September 2022 to review the entire process for choosing Circuit Court judges with a goal of making recommendations for improvement.  Ralph Watkins was appointed to the Workgroup representing the League of Women Voters of Maryland. The Workgroup heard presentations on academic studies conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System and others, as well as public testimony. The Workgroup will  meet in January to discuss whether consensus can be reached on recommendations to present to the 2023 session of the General Assembly.

The League of Women Voters of Maryland supports the Governor appointing judges from a list of candidates recommended by a merit selection panel, with retention elections used to determine if judges would serve additional terms.