Circuit judge candidates discuss electronic filing, restorative justice during virtual forum

Circuit judge candidates discuss electronic filing, restorative justice during virtual forum

Six candidates running for four seats

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File photo

Six candidates running for four Montgomery County Circuit Court seats discussed the need for electronic filing in cases of domestic violence protective orders and the possible use of restorative justice during a virtual forum on Monday.

Circuit Court judges often run unopposed to keep their seats on the bench, but this year, Montgomery County has two challengers to the four sitting judges.

The governor appoints a judicial nominating commission when a Circuit Court vacancy occurs in Maryland. The commissions vet and nominate candidates, before the governor reviews the nominations and appoints judges to the court. Each judge then serves until the next election in an even-numbered year, when they stand for 15-year-terms.

During elections for circuit court vacancies, other candidates can run, too.

In the June 2 primary in Montgomery County, sitting judges Bibi Berry, Michael McAuliffe, David Boynton and Christopher Fogleman are running as a team. Challenging them are attorneys Marylin Pierre and Thomas Johnson III.

If the same four candidates are elected in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, then only those four candidates will appear on the November ballot. But if the results in each primary are different, all candidates who won a party primary will be on the ballot in November.

Candidates answered presubmitted questions during Monday’s forum, which was hosted by the Montgomery County Democratic Party.

One question was whether the candidates would support electronic filing of protective orders for victims of domestic violence.

Berry said she supported e-filing of protective orders and added that other jurisdictions have moved to electronic court filings. She said Montgomery County is set to add the option in about a year.

According to the Maryland Judiciary, which oversees the state’s court system, electronic filing is in place in 21 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions. Only Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore city have not moved to electronic filing.

Johnson said he also supports an e-filing system for domestic violence victims.

“I feel that it saves the court resources and it gives the person who’s filing for a protective order some privacy and dignity,” he said.

Pierre agreed, noting that she often electronically files documents as an attorney.

“And e-filing is especially important in domestic relations cases because it gives the victim the ability to file a case without having to necessarily leave their environment. And it also helps in terms of making sure the victim has time to find shelter in the community,” she said.

Responding to another question about how the court should protect victims of domestic violence, Pierre said perpetrators should be ordered to give up guns to law enforcement.

Two of the sitting judges later said that is standard practice in domestic violence cases.

“Ms. Pierre mentioned the business about [taking away] guns. That’s already done. That happens in every case,” Boynton said.

Berry said the court also does other things to ensure that victims of abuse feel safe, such as having the victim and the abuser leave the courtroom at staggered times.

The most important role of a judge in a domestic violence hearing, Berry said, is to listen to the victim and realize that many don’t report their abuse for several years.

“You have to recognize that just because someone hasn’t reported [abuse] over the years, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. That’s part of what we do to try to protect these victims. To try to understand the perspective of the domestic violence victim,” she said.

Candidates were also asked what could be done to reduce racial inequities in sentencing, and whether they favored restorative justice — in which the offender reconciles with the victims through apologies, paying restitution or other methods.

Pierre said she would support restorative justice as a punishment in Circuit Court cases to bring down high rates of incarceration for minorities.

“It is something we need to take a look at, because I don’t think Maryland is as violent as the sentences would lead us to believe,” she said.

Boynton said that he appreciated the concept of restorative justice, but it wouldn’t be suitable for circuit court. Family court, he said, is where restorative justice is more likely to be used.

“I’m hoping that Ms. Pierre is not asserting that restorative justice is the kind of thing that we should be using in circuit court when we put the victim of domestic violence together with the abuser. … Those things are just not going to happen in circuit court,” Boynton said.

Fogleman said that he also didn’t think restorative justice is appropriate in most circuit court cases, since many involve felonies.

“We deal with rapes. We deal with murders. We deal with kidnappings. It’s really not conducive to restorative justice in the circuit court,” he said.

Candidates were also asked whether they thought they could do anything to limit implicit racial bias in the courtroom.

Pierre said she thinks minorities are overrepresented in cases in the court system.

“My intention as a judge is to ensure that everyone who comes before me get a fair trial and no one has a built-in advantage,” she said.

The sitting judges acknowledged that they have natural biases, but said they don’t allow them to influence their decisions.

Fogleman said he strives to be impartial in his decision. He said he appreciates how minority communities were hurt by harsh sentences during the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic.

Berry said she thinks Montgomery County’s court system tries to offer other options beside incarceration when possible.

“We know that the mass incarceration of, particularly people of color, doesn’t reduce recidivism, it’s expensive and there are other options that are better for the community,” she said.

The county’s drug and mental health courts, she said, are examples of courts that offer support services in cases in which incarceration wouldn’t be appropriate.

McAuliffe said the most important aspect of sentencing is to look closely at the sentencing guidelines and determine what is appropriate in each case.

“Everyone gets an individual sentence and is entitled to be heard. You don’t make broad assumptions about people. That’s how you deal with sentencing,” McAuliffe said.

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

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