—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Election season is usually rife with politics as candidates vie to secure their positions and garner the public’s votes. The court system is no exception. Even judges battle it out with the best of them as they campaign to make it to the bench.
This month, Baltimore County voters will have the opportunity to select their chosen candidates from a list of roughly 30 offices which are up for consideration in the primary. Early voting starts today.
But of the more well-known positions such as governor, senators, delegates, the county executive, and council members, also on the Republican and Democratic ballots are circuit court judges.
Five judges are vying to gain or maintain positions on the Baltimore County Circuit Court, but only four seats can be filled of the twenty sitting judges and seven magistrates that make up the circuit court.
Four judges currently in those positions are seeking to retain their seats as a unit – or slate of four – while a lone military trial judge and practicing attorney is asking for the public’s vote which threatens to unseat one of them.
The fifth candidate, military judge and U.S. Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Robert A. Cohen, has forced the four candidates – known on a slate as “Baltimore County Sitting Judges” – into a now uncertain election by virtue of simply throwing his hat into the ring.
The four judges running to retain their seats are Judge C. Carey Deeley Jr., Judge Dennis Robinson, Jr., Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski and Judge Michael J. Finifter.
Deeley and Robinson were both appointed in 2016. Jakubowski and Finifter were appointed in 2002 and have served 15-year terms.
All are running to retain positions as Baltimore County Circuit Court Judges for 15-year terms.
Cohen’s move to run for one of the four spots has ruffled some feathers, calling into question his qualifications by those who are now forced by an election to oppose him.
In Maryland, judges can get to the bench one of two ways; but through either of the two ways, the last step is the people’s vote.
First, applicants must meet the minimum requirements:
- Qualified voter
- At least 30 years of age by the time of election
- Resident of the state for at least five years
- Resident of judicial circuit, at least six months prior to the election,
in which candidate is seeking election
- Member of the Maryland Bar
- Practices law in the Maryland
One way to become a judge in Maryland is through an application and appointment process. After meeting the minimum requirements, any attorney may apply for the position. The eight page application starts first with questions regarding the applicant’s race and gender and employment status and moves into questions about organization affiliations, criminal records, possible tax problems and general conflict of interest inquiries.
After the application process is complete, interviews are arranged with several bar associations and professional organizations, followed by an evaluation by a nonpartisan judicial nominating commission which provides a list to the governor. The final step is appointment by the governor.
The newly appointed judge then takes a five-and-a-half day mandatory course –known unofficially as “Baby Judges School”- which, according to a publication from the Maryland Judiciary, prepares the new judges through a series of courses and discussions where they can learn from more experienced colleagues.
Yet, even after their appointment and the course, the judges must still run in the very next election to be accepted by voters.
In the U.S. Army, after an initial application and background check similar to the process for circuit court judges, applicants seeking judiciary jobs must also have attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, colonel or major.
Additional requirements include security clearances, the evaluation and approvals by several layers of active and military reserve judges, the evaluation by a board of military officers and the first of two evaluations and approvals by the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army.
Yet even after the applicant has been approved on those levels, the new military judge must then pass a series of examinations and attend a three-week course on courtroom demeanor and temperament. Next, the judge must receive approval and certification by the United States Army Chief Judge, Trial Judiciary and approval for a second time by the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army. The final steps involve courtroom observations and evaluations which are given on an annual basis, perpetually.
The Baltimore Post requested all of Cohen’s evaluations as a military trial judge. The evaluations show that he received a perfect score for all completed years, with notations stating, “outstanding performance,” “unquestionable integrity and impartiality,” “exceptional dedication, unparalleled professionalism, and enthusiasm for the judiciary.”
The evaluations for all years also recommended Cohen for promotion.
But despite his accolades, the four Baltimore County Circuit Court judges believe they are better suited for the job. And until Cohen entered the race in February, they were safely unopposed in the election.
Yet even applicants who did not make the cut and were not appointed can still ask for the public’s vote. Cohen is. But the four running to retain their seats say the rigorous process that resulted in their appointment makes them more wholly qualified than the military trial judge.
Moreover, they say, the fact that Cohen applied and was not selected as one of the four, means he was not vetted as qualified enough.
The Baltimore Post asked the sitting judges about their concerns with Cohen, specifically. A response from their campaign chairman stated in part, “Circuit Court Judges are required to run for election after undergoing a rigorous evaluation process to ensure they have the experience, judgment and temperament to decide important cases. The goal of the judicial selection process is to ensure that only the most qualified applicants are appointed by a Governor… The Commission members contact the applicant’s references, opposing counsel and judges. Your experience and professional reputation are scrutinized…”
In a campaign video for the slate of four, a video states “… there’s another way to become a judge. Any attorney willing to pay a $50 filing fee can get on the ballot so long as they meet a few minimum requirements.”
Cohen takes issue with that. For one, he says that the judges simply will not admit the fact that the statement does not apply to him. Cohen says he is more than an attorney; he is a judge. Moreover, to run unopposed is to automatically win; to run against an opponent would result in the people’s choice, else it would make an unopposed election for appointed judges nothing but a mere formality.
Cohen has twice applied for circuit court judge. According to Maryland’s division of government relations, in 2016 he applied along with 17 applicants for one vacancy.
In 2015 when he applied, he was among 15 other applicants.
Of the applicants, only one judge was chosen each of the years to fill the vacancies; but according to the Maryland judiciary, it is not unusual for applicants to apply multiple times before finally being selected.
Part of the problem, Cohen says, is not knowing enough people. Or, perhaps, the right people. He told The Baltimore Post that when a member of the judicial nominating committee said that people simply did not know who he was, Cohen asked the committee member, “Why is that a bad thing?”
In response to the sitting judge’s statements that call into question Cohen’s qualifications due to failure to be chosen for appointment, Cohen told The Baltimore Post, “Appointments don’t mean coronations.” In other words, he says, it is up to the voters to decide.
Cohen, a Pikesville resident and Lieutenant Colonel in the Judges Advocate Corp in the U.S. Army Reserve, has twice been a military trial judge. His first three-year term began in 2013 and his second started in 2017. He has a 23-year military history which has earned him 12 types of awards for which he has been recognized 27 times. He has also practiced law as a prosecutor and public defender for over 27 years.
There are currently only 21 U.S. Army Reserve judges in the United States. Cohen is one of them.
The U.S. Army officer says he has the experience to fill the role, having worked in service to the country for his entire career. And he says he is running against the status quo.
“This goes for Democrats and Republicans. You don’t run if you want the status quo. You run when you want to change something,” Cohen said. “These judges that I am running against, it’s a race against the status quo.”
Cohen says he wants solutions to issues he sees are plaguing Baltimore County, such as a lack of confidence in the judicial process and a need for better transparency. He says that appropriate boundaries are often blurred between judges and attorneys. He says that firmer boundaries must be in place in order to preserve the public’s trust in the judicial process in Baltimore County.
The Baltimore Post questioned Cohen about his campaign contributions, as some are from law firms. He indicated that most were from friends and family. He says he is committed to informing the court of any conflicts of interest that could potentially arise from such contributions. “Transparency builds confidence,” he said.
To date, Cohen has received $10,877.26 in campaign contributions, a handful from local law firms. The four judges running against him are running on a slate – Baltimore County Sitting Judges Slate – which has accumulated $87,175 since the four sitting judges filed for the election on February 21.
Through the slate, the four judges have nearly nine times more than Cohen has at his disposal in order to run his campaign. Several of the slates’ contributions are from lawyers and law firms.
Cohen says his experience sets him apart from the four judges running against him to preserve their spots. He has four years of experience as a judge before he would even be seated and has already presided over cases dealing with rape, sexual assault, theft, drug crimes, aggravated assault, as well as burglary, property crime and fraud cases. Cohen has also prosecuted and defended dozens of murder cases as a 27-year practicing attorney.
Yet the sitting judges feel their tenure makes them trusted and the better choice. A statement on the slate’s campaign website reads, “Only the most highly qualified applicants emerge from the extensive judicial vetting process and get appointed. Judge Deeley, Judge Finifter, Judge Jakubowski & Judge Robinson were appointed through that process … remember to vote to retain the experienced Baltimore County Sitting Judges!”
But Cohen disagrees, asserting on his campaign website, “Every election is about choices and the 2018 election is no different. The citizens of Baltimore County will have the opportunity to have their voices heard in a meaningful way about who serves them as Judge on the Circuit Court.”
The primary election in on June 26. Early voting begins today. The candidate’s bios and campaign contributions can be viewed below.