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 goodhoward county judicial election judge. That is not a canned, obligatory throw-away line: I really think he would be a good judge.

No Real Issues

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 a new courthouse, and he was in private practice. We devote most of this page 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 the 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 don’t think opposing local judicial elections is a blessing for the notion 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.

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.

There should not be a campaign without issues. I know there are no actual 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 that 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.

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