OPINION: All Elections Should Be Open To All

By Maryland Senator Roy Dyson

It started with a very angry phone call to my office during the last election for Circuit Court Judges in St. Mary's County in 2004. I've had angry constituents calling to complain about various issues during my many years of public service, but this one was especially strong. The constituent, who said he was an independent, was furious that he could not vote in the primary for Circuit Court Judge, which is part of a "nonpartisan" system to elect circuit court judges.

This led me to introduce Senate Bill 324 - a bi-partisan piece of legislation that was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Allan Kittleman of Carroll and Howard counties and had nothing at all to do with the upcoming election for Circuit Court judges in St. Mary's counties.

Senate Bill 324 allows any voter, regardless of party—Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green or unaffiliated—to vote for Circuit Court Judges in any state primary election. It's that simple. Right now, only Republicans and Democrats can vote in the primary for circuit court judge. Unfortunately, this bill did not pass in this year's General Assembly Session after—of all people—judges throughout the state fought it saying they didn't believe they should be subject to elections. I believe this is wrong and I plan to re-introduce the legislation, which passed by a unanimous vote in the Senate but died in the House Judiciary Committee, again during the 2007 General Assembly Session.

Ironically, state Senators and Delegates who make many of the laws that these mostly longtime sitting judges often have to enforce, only serve four-year terms before facing election.

The governor appoints Circuit Court judges in Maryland, but that appointment is temporary until the next election after the appointed judge has been in office for at least one year. Then the voters can chose that appointed judge or any other candidate for a full 15-year term.

Such was the case in 2004 when my friend, former Speaker of the House and Circuit Court Judge John Hanson Briscoe, retired from full-time duty on the bench and Judge Abrams was appointed. She faced election in the Republican and Democratic primaries. Judge Abrams, a fine jurist, won both primaries which essentially meant the election was over and she is now serving a 15-year term.

Currently, three candidates are vying in both primary elections for the Circuit Court seat in St. Mary's County. Judge Stamm is the appointed judge who replaced Marvin Kaminetz after his retirement after years of distinguished service. Judge Stamm, also a good jurist, is running against two good candidates in Shane Mattingly and George Sparling in the Democratic and Republican primaries. If any candidate wins both primaries, he immediately wins the seat and only his name is on the general election ballot.

However, while any of the candidates would make excellent choices, the primary election system is what is the problem. This is what Senate Bill 324 would have remedied.

Currently, there are an excess of 490,000 unaffiliated, Green, Libertarian or other voters in the State of Maryland.

In St. Mary's County, there are 8,800 of these registered voters who can't vote because they are neither a Democrat nor Republican. In Calvert there are 8,000 who can't vote and in Charles there are 12,500. So, if the situation we now have in St. Mary's and had two years ago happens in any other county, about 20 percent of the electorate will not be able to express their constitutional right to vote.

Public confidence in our court system is essential. To not allow 20 percent of the electorate to vote for an independent judiciary is a dangerous precedent. That is why it is essential this bill passes next year.

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