2022 | Courts

Challengers charge that vetting process for local judges is unfair

Both candidates in Montgomery County race have applied multiple times to state nominating commission

share this

Getty Images

Maryland’s vetting process for Circuit Court judges is once again a focal point in Montgomery County’s judicial race.

Four sitting judges who were appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan last year are being opposed in the July 19 primary by the same two challengers who ran in 2020. During a virtual forum Monday hosted by the District 18 Democratic Breakfast Club, the challengers insisted that the vetting process was unfair.

Following the retirements of Circuit Court judges Gary Bair, Ronald Rubin, Cynthia Callahan and Robert Greenberg, Hogan last year appointed: 

  • Kathleen Dumais, a former state delegate and Rockville attorney
  • Carlos Acosta, who previously had been a Montgomery County District Court judge
  • Theresa Chernosky, a Montgomery County public defender of 20 years
  • Rachel McGuckian, an attorney who had been with the firm Miles & Stockbridge for 25 years.

Dumais, Acosta, Chernosky and McGuckian are being challenged by Marylin Pierre and Thomas P. Johnson III, both attorneys in private practice who ran unsuccessfully in 2020.

Pierre has practiced law in Maryland since 1992, and before that was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, according to her campaign website. She has also served on a number of commissions and community associations.

Johnson has practiced law for 29 years and is licensed in Maryland, D.C. and Louisiana, according to his campaign website. His experience includes administrative, civil, federal and state proceedings, it states.

Since 1970, Maryland has used judicial nominating commissions to help the governor appoint judges when vacancies occur. Commission members are appointed by the governor. Attorneys who apply must complete a 41-question application that includes information about their education, work history, legal experience, references and other background information. The nominating commission then collects the applications and sends them to bar associations for review, as well as for vetting by separate judicial selections committees, the latter of which review the applications and interview candidates.

According to the state judiciary, bar associations send their recommendations to the nominating commission and the governor, and the nominating commission conducts its own vetting process before sending a list of nominees to the governor. The governor then independently vets the candidates before choosing a candidate to fill a vacancy.

Judges who are appointed by the governor must stand for election to a 15-year-term in the next general election occurring one year after nomination to the court, according to the constitution.

Those challenging sitting judges in an election do not need to go through the vetting process, according to the state constitution. Challengers must be at least 30 and practice law in Maryland.

Judicial races in Maryland are nonpartisan. In this year’s July 19 primary, all six candidates will be on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. The four candidates out of six who receive the most votes in each primary will advance to the general election in November.

In 2020, Pierre finished among the top four vote-getters in the 2020 Democratic primary during a similar election in which four sitting judges were running for re-election. She ultimately lost in November.

During Monday’s forum, Johnson accused Dumais, Acosta, Chernosky and McGuckian, who are running together as a slate, as having a platform that simply “rests on their incumbency.”

“They feel this election is a formality and they already have the seat on the bench, and they just need you to check the branch and finalize the process,” Johnson said.

When Johnson was asked by host Susan Heltemes how many times he had applied to be a judge unsuccessfully and gone through the vetting process, he answered, “Six.”

Pierre, when asked the same question about going through the vetting process, said she thinks she’s applied nine times before but wasn’t sure of the exact number. Pierre said she believes her lack of connections on the nominating commission have hurt her in the past.

“One of the reasons why I stopped applying is that I saw that I was hitting my head against the wall,” she said. “The last time I applied, somebody on the governor’s commission was extremely mean and awful to me. And when the [judge] got that position, she then spoke at his swearing-in ceremony and talked about how he gave her her first job as a lawyer, and that he and her husband were law partners… . I do not have those sorts of connections. I do not have somebody to move my application forward.”

Pierre, during the 2020 election, drew the ire of the incumbent judges in that race after she accused them on social media of being an “in-group” and being “related by marriage.” The incumbents at the time pointed out that she failed multiple times to make the nominating commission’s list of nominees. Those incumbents then got a restraining order a few days before the November general election after one of Pierre’s campaign workers allegedly claimed falsely that Pierre was a judge. Pierre said at the time that she had “no first-hand knowledge” of the incident.

During the closing statements portion of Monday’s forum, McGuckian responded to Johnson and Pierre’s criticism of the vetting process, and the allegation that sitting judges are an “in-group.”

“That’s just not the case. Everyone has a fair shot. Everyone goes through the vetting process and is treated equally,” she said. “Only successfully vetted candidates are nominated to be judges, which means that only qualified judges are appointed.”

“Every aspect of our lives are investigated. Judges are called, opposing counsel are called, clients, colleagues…no stone goes unturned.”

McGuckian reminded viewers on the Zoom call that electing a challenger to a circuit judge position means that person could hold the job for 15 years.

After Johnson said in his closing statement that voters “shouldn’t let 13 people decide” who becomes a judge, referring to the vetting process, Dumais responded in her closing statement that many more than 13 people are involved in the selection of judges.

“It is a fair process, and it is impartial. And it’s not just 13 people. It is hundreds of people that we go before by the time it even gets to the nominating commission,” she said.

Also during Monday’s forum, candidates were asked what qualities they thought were most important for a judge to have. The candidates gave responses that included phrases such as honesty, patience, ability to listen to both sides, compassion and respect for the law.

Candidates were also asked about laws that were recently passed in the state legislature that might impact judges.

Chernosky mentioned a recent decision by the legislation to revoke the governor’s ability to have the final say on whether an inmate serving a life sentence is eligible for parole.

“I think the legislature has seen that there are changes that need to happen in the criminal justice system to address the incarceration rates that exist in Maryland, so it’s very important that the governor is not the ultimate say in parole eligibility for those that are in for life,” she said.

Acosta mentioned the recent passage of the Child Interrogation Protection Act, which prevents a law enforcement officer from questioning a child until the child has consulted with an attorney. The law was passed this year, and then vetoed by Hogan. However, the legislature overrode Hogan’s veto, WPDE reported last month.

Other recent laws that were mentioned during Monday’s forum were the passage of a ban on the sale and distribution of unserialized or “ghost guns,” as well as an update to the definition of stalking to include the use of electronic tracking.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com