Clark Ahlers: Howard Court Judge Election Battle

The Baltimore Sun has an article this week about Columbia criminal attorney Clarke F. Ahlers attempt to unseat Judge Lenore R. Gelfman and Judge William V. Tucker on the Howard County bench in November.

I don’t know Ahlers. I know he was a former Howard County police officer who taught at the University of Baltimore School of Law for a time. I’m not floating around in Maryland criminal law circles but the impression I have is that he is well liked and well respected. So Ahlers is right, he probably would make a goodclarkahlers judge. That is not a canned, obligatory throw away line: I really think he would be a good judge.

But what exactly are the issues in the campaign? Well, I went to Ahlers’ website. He has a category devoted to the issues. Oh good, I thought, let’s see what they are.

There are no issues. There is a lot of talk about the Constitution but, really, are there judges out there running on an anti-Constitution platform? He also wants and new courthouse, and he was in private practice. Most of the page is devoted to the serious criminal/police cases he has handled. A great resume but not exactly an explanation of the issues.

There is, however, a quote from Thomas Jefferson about blessing of judicial elections and a bit of a lecture for those of us who oppose judicial elections in Maryland:

Those who favor a purely appointed system of judges believe citizens are too dull to manage their own lives without government’s direction, and are unqualified to select those who would sit in judgement of them.

I think this populist argument is the best arrow in the quiver of judicial elections. But it is weak. I certainly don’t think opposing local judicial elections is a sign off on the idea that citizens are too dull to manage their own lives with government direction. In fact, the connection of the two is – respectfully (hey, particularly respectfully if Ahlers wins!) – intellectually lazy. I can favor having police officers without being in favor of a Gestapo. I can favor taxes without being in favor of socialism. I can favor Joe Flacco without calling him a top ten NFL quarterback.

Clearly no one agrees that we should select every governmental position? Should we vote on who should be the Howard County Chief of Police? How about the Superintendent of Schools? Are we so lazy that we don’t care who can arrest us and who teaches our children?

Moving past the “up-with-people” fluff, the question is where do we draw the line? I think where we draw the line is at elections where only a small minority of the population is in a position to make the call. How many are in a position to evaluate that job Judge Gelfman and Judge Tucker have done and how Judge Ahlers would compare to them? The average lawyer whose entire practice is in Howard County is not in a position to make that call, either.

Moreover, there should not be a campaign without issues. I know there are no real issues because Ahlers cannot point to any on his website besides supporting the Constitution, and a picture of a courthouse in California that he says the Howard County courthouse should look just like. (Where is the “no new taxes” pledge? Geez.) The reason we don’t want to sort through judges is not because we are dull and lack an interest in who is judging us. Instead, it is that our lives are rich enough that we don’t have the time or energy to sort out who should be a judge. That’s what we hired Martin O’Malley for.

To prove this point, if I were an oddsmaker, I would install Ahlers as a favorite without knowing much about the race. Why? His first name starts with an “A” so he will be first on the ballot.

Ahlers says his effort to win a judgeship is not a reflection on these sitting judges. Instead, he just thinks he would be a good judge. I agree 100%. But that is not a compelling enough case to unseat sitting judges.

Posted in:
  • Clarke Ahlers

    Thank you for reading my site. I think you overlooked the most important issue that I suggested: private sector employment for 25 years. All of the names submitted to Governor O’Malley were government lawyers. I believe strongly in the private sector, which in my judgment, is unrepresented on the Howard County Circuit Court bench. Anyway, it was kind of you to give me candidacy your thoughtful analysis, and I wish you the best. Clarke Ahlers

  • Ron Miller

    Thanks for your comment.

    Again, I have no problem with your candidacy. There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, in running for judge. You play in the system we have. I as just using the Baltimore Sun article and your website -which I think shows few issues among the candidates although I get your point about private practice – to underscore a soap box theme of mine that judicial elections in Maryland are a bad idea.

    Tell your campaign manager, Jimmy Crawford, I said hello. Literally, I may have been in diapers when I first met him.

    Good luck!

  • Michael Davis

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. From a larger perspective, it is time to strongly consider whether we want to have contested elections for judge. Seems rather inappropriate to have our judges, who need to be unbiased without any actual or perceived obligations to anyone, trying to raise money and support for a political campaign.

    As for this particular election, it should be noted that the one issue that Mr. Ahlers has identified does not really apply. Both Judge Gelfman and Judge Tucker were in private practice before becoming a Judge or Master.

    Further, if Mr. Ahlers felt that more candidates from private practice should have been considered by the Governor, it would have been very helpful if he had applied for the position so that he could have been vetted by the Judicial Nominating Commission and the numerous bar associations and community associations that interview judges. By withholding his candidacy until now, he has deprived our judicial selection process from considering his qualifications. Frankly, I believe this weakens his argument significantly.

    Again, thank you for your thoughtful post.

  • Bob Guth

    My good friend, Michael Davis, wrote that it “[s]eems rather inappropriate to have our judges, who need to be unbiased without any actual or perceived obligations to anyone, trying to raise money and support for a political campaign.” That begs the question, why are Mr. Davis and the judges out “inappropriately” raising money? Why don’t they agree to cap or not take money from lawyers?

    That statement also suggests that the appointment of judges by our Governor is “without bias” and “without obligation.” The truth of the matter is that the appointment of judges in Maryland is highly political. How many Republican judges has our current Governor appointed? What’s the relationship between those appointed and the Governor?

    Applying for a judgeship with no real likelihood of getting through the process for political reasons doesn’t help the process. Rather it only provides political “cover,” as those selected can claim their opposition was “vetted and rejected.”

    There are many “issues” which could be raised (i.e. a negative campaign) but Clarke has chosen the highroad and will run on his personal strengths and attributes. The short time that Judge Gelfman and Judge were in private practice is no match for Clarke’s experience.

  • Ron Miller

    Bob, it is hard for me to speak to the details of this election because I’m so far removed from it. Surely, you are right that the whole world is political on some level and O’Malley has considerations beyond picking the best possible judge. Same is true for President Obama, Bush, and so on. But I think O’Malley has done a pretty incredible job of picking appellate judges, particularly for the Maryland Court of Appeals. (I can’t speak as well for the trial judges.) By good job, I think he tended to ignore politics in his picks and pick the person he though was most qualified.

    But, of course, the people he picks are going to share on some level his political views. The best Republican judge is not going to get a fair shake. It is the way of things. Elections have consequences.

    I’m also not sure it is fair to say “there are many issues which could be raised” without saying what they are. I think you should either raise the issues or don’t mention that they exist. You shouldn’t be able to have it both ways.

  • Bob Guth

    Hi Ron,
    Regarding the issues which could be raised, please understand that I am not Clarke’s campaign director and am not even on his election committee. So I can not, and do not, speak for him. But the first issue I would raise is hypocrisy. Michael Davis, on behalf of Judge Gelfman, stated: “From a larger perspective, it is time to strongly consider whether we want to have contested elections for judge.” But Judge Gelfman herself only became a Judge on the Circuit Court by running a contested election against the two then sitting judges and displacing one – an African-American woman. She should not now be complaining about that process in such a self-serving manner.

    Regards, Bob
    P.S. Having only recently come across your blog, I am enjoying it.

  • Clarke Ahlers

    The link below will take you to a story about wasting government resources. “Chief” Judge Gelfman is now forming a committee to consider building a new courthouse. Approximatley $2 million dollars spent by Jim Robey to do site development and architectural drawings. Scuttled by Ulman. Gelfman was responsible for wasting money for move to Columbia. Now — after wasting millions — back to committee re new courthouse. Awfully bad management going on here…,0,1055571.story

Contact Information