Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Three county judges up for Appeals Court vacancy

Governor likely to name Raker’s successor from the trio

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ANNAPOLIS — Three sitting jurists from Montgomery County have been named finalists to succeed retired Court of Appeals Judge Irma S. Raker.

The Appellate Courts Judicial Nomination Commission last week interviewed the five candidates vying for the $162,352-a-year job and narrowed the list to three: Court of Special Appeals judges Mary Ellen Barbera and Patrick L. Woodward, and Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Michael D. Mason.

Rockville attorney William James Chen Jr. and U.S. Patent Judge Chung K. Pak were eliminated from consideration. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) makes the final appointment, which is subject to Senate confirmation.

Raker, who served on the state’s highest court since 1994, formally stepped down last month on reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70. She will continue to serve as a ‘‘recalled” judge until a successor is appointed.

The appointee would serve the court’s 7th Appellate circuit, which represents Montgomery County.

Barbera and Woodward may be considered favorites because they sit on the intermediate appellate bench. However, Mason, 59, of Silver Spring has been on the Montgomery County Circuit Court since March 1994 and previously spent 10 years as a county prosecutor.

‘‘All three of them are exceptionally fine judges and any one of the three would be an excellent choice for the Court of Appeals,” said Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda. ‘‘Each one of them has attributes that would serve the court well.”

Barbera, 56, of Kensington worked in the criminal appeals division of the state Attorney General’s Office for 10 years before becoming Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s legal counsel in 1998. She has served on the Court of Special Appeals since January 2002.

Woodward, 59, of Rockville served on the district and circuit courts for a combined 14 years and took his seat on the appellate bench in May 2005.

All three finalists would bring a diverse body of experience to the high court, Nominating Commission Chairwoman Sheila K. Sachs said. ‘‘The governor has a good group and he can decide what he wants in his Court of Appeals judge to fill the slot.”

O’Malley (D) may look to Barbera if he wants to preserve the gender balance on the seven-member court. Raker’s retirement leaves Lynne A. Battaglia as the court’s only female judge.

The governor has a unique opportunity to reshape the bench in his first 18 months on the job.

In December, Joseph F. Murphy was sworn in, succeeding Alan M. Wilner. Murphy served on the Court of Special Appeals since 1993 and as its chief judge since 1996. Three people are in the running for the 1st Appellate seat held by Dale R. Cathell, who turned 70 last year.

In addition to the two Court of Appeals slots, O’Malley also must pick a successor to replace Court of Special Appeals Judge J. Frederick Sharer, who also retired last month. He represented the Third Appellate Circuit, which stretches from Howard County to Garrett County.

The judicial nominating panel forwarded the names of five finalists to O’Malley: Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure, Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley, Frederick County Circuit Judge Julie S. Solt, Kathryn G. Graeff, chief of the attorney’s general’s criminal appeals division, and Karen Louise F. Henry, a chief in the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office.