Maryland: 3 very different plans put forth for how to limit or end Circuit Court judicial races; hearing set for Feb. 22

For the third session in a row Maryland legislative committees are set to hold hearings on plans to end contested races for Circuit Court in favor of a quasi-federal system. A hearing on the plans is set for the House Judiciary Committee on February 22.

This year’s proposals, so far, are repeats of bills from last year (discussed here) and are HB 579, HB 724, and HB 826. The first two are fairly similar, while HB 826 stands apart in many ways.

Initial appointment: governor nominates, senate confirms (majority or supermajority)

All three provide that when a vacancy occurs in the Circuit Court, the governor would appoint someone meeting the minimum legal, age, and residency requirements for the office.

In HB 579 and HB 724 the governor’s pick would then be subject to senate confirmation by simple majority vote.

HB 826 stands apart here. Under the terms of that plan the Senate would have two levels of confirmation

  • 80%+: nominee is confirmed. No further action required.
  • 50.1%-79%: nominee is only confirmed for 1 year and must face a contested election in the next general election.

The contested election under HB 826 also contemplates the candidates running against the sitting judge would be running to remove the judge from office but not necessarily for them to win the office itself. The “winning” candidate would only be able to force the judge out of office and create a new vacancy.

The approval or rejection of the judge by the registered voters shall be by contested election in which other candidates who are qualified for the office of circuit court judge may file as candidates. If the judge fails to win election in the general election, the office becomes vacant 10 days after certification of the election returns.

No default confirmation

Notable is the lack of default confirmation in the 3 plans. In light of the delays in federal judicial confirmations the states that have considered or enacted confirmation plans (such Kansas for its Court of Appeals & Tennessee’s for all its appellate courts) have provided for a default confirmation that would put the nominee in office if the legislature failed to approve or reject in a certain time period.

Lack of judicial nominating commissions

All 3 plans avoid using a merit/commission based system which would restrict the governor to a list of individuals chosen by a judicial nominating commission. Although various Maryland governors have created such advisory commissions in the past, they are now at the discretion of the current governor.

Additional terms in office: retention elections vs. reappointment & reconfirmation

The bills are not consistent in terms of how judges obtain additional terms in office. HB 579 and HB 724 call for yes/no retention elections. HB 826 provides that a judge is to be reappointed by the governor without the need for senate reconfirmation (“the reappointment of a judge under this subsection is not subject to confirmation by the senate.”)

Terms in office: keep 15 years or reduce down to 10 years

Another key difference between the bills is how long Circuit Judges would remain in office. HB 724 and HB 826 would keep the term at the current 15 years. HB 579 would reduce the term down to 10 years.