By Rebecca Niburg #ourvoicesourmaryland Contributor
Maryland’s Constitution states that no person may serve as a judge past the age of 70. Although not the case at the federal level, Maryland is in the majority of states who do place an age limit on its judges. As a result of this age limitation, five out of the seven judges now on the Maryland Court of Appeals – our highest court — will be forced to retire during the next four years. The winner of the current gubernatorial election will appoint their replacements and thus be able to appoint a super majority of judges that will determine the law in our state for years to come.
The Maryland Court of Appeals operates like the U.S. Supreme Court does on the federal level concerning state law. Specifically, the Court of Appeals is called upon to resolve issues involving the most complex and important issues facing Marylanders. In the past few years, the Court has addressed issues related to the availability of life sentences for juvenile criminal offenders, the Exelon-PEPCO merger and medical marijuana distribution licenses. Future cases could include ruling on voting reforms, gerrymandering, criminal justice, consumer protections and reproductive rights. It is not hard to imagine how decisions on these issues might vary considerably between judges appointed by Ben Jealous versus Larry Hogan.
Currently, the Court of Appeals is made up of five judges appointed by Democratic governors and two appointed by Governor Hogan. Judge Getty (one of the five judges who will be forced to retire during the next Governor’s term) is also up for retention this year. Judges on the Court of Appeals are appointed by the sitting Governor but are then placed on the ballot for “retention” by the voters in the next election year. Getty was serving as Governor Hogan’s chief legislative lobbyist – hardly an impartial arbiter – when Hogan appointed him to the Court of Appeals in 2016. Previously, Getty served as a Republican Delegate in the Maryland legislature with an extremely conservative record. According to Vote Smart, as Delegate, Getty had a 0% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland and 18% Lifetime score from the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, while enjoying a 100% rating from Maryland Right to Life and 92% from the NRA. Judge Getty has continued to take conservative positions on cases including a landlord-tenant dispute involving a child showing adverse health effects from lead paint exposure.
The next governor will have the ability to shape Maryland’s legal system and the rights of all of the state’s citizens for perhaps decades to come. Governor Hogan has already demonstrated that he is not afraid to appoint business lobbyist friends and social conservatives, and he will have no constraints in a second term to appoint young conservative ideologues that will control our highest court. We cannot afford to have five of seven judges not support a woman’s right to choose regarding her reproductive health, not support tenants in disputes against their landlords and consumers against large businesses, and not support much needed environmental and criminal justice reforms. Therefore, a vote – or nonvote – in November for the next governor will have long lasting effects on the kind of judicial system and the protections and rights provided to all Marylanders under state law moving forward – or backwards. Every vote counts and needs to be protected by the courts.
The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Our Maryland or Our Maryland Education Fund.