By Bryan P. Sears
Zirkin, a Democrat who represents the 11th District including Owings Mills, Pikesville and part of Mays Chapel, wants to eliminate the judges races from being conducted during primary elections - and move all judicial candidates to the General Election ballot.
The change would allow independent voters the opportunity to vote on judicial candidates - currently they can't because primary elections are closed to registered independents and non-recognized third parties.
Zirkin said he introduced a bill in Annapolis this month in response to recent judicial elections in Baltimore County, and because of a recent court decision that said such a change must occur at the legislative level.
Last month, a three-judge panel in Anne Arundel County dismissed a lawsuit by a registered independent who wanted to vote in primary election.
That suit alleged that independent voters are disenfranchised and that closed primaries violate the equal protection clause contained in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In Maryland, Circuit Court judges do not need to list party affiliation and generally file in both Democrat and Republican primaries.
The state's primaries are closed to anyone who is not a registered Democrat or Republican.
In dismissing the case, the panel said judicial elections are "partisan" and that any reforms should be pursued in the state legislature.
"I think they got it wrong," Zirkin said of the court decision.
The road out of the legislature will be tough because of the lateness of the bill's introduction.
Less than two weeks remain before the General Assembly adjourns on April 12.
Normally, at this point in the session a bill would die in the House Rules Committee. However, the bill was reassigned from that committee to the House Judiciary Committee. A hearing was held March 26.
If passed by the assembly, the measure would need the approval of voters in November because it alters a portion of the state Constitution.
But at least one current Circuit Court judge, Patrick Cavanaugh, disagrees with the bill.
Cavanaugh won his seat on the bench in the 2002 election running as the anti-Parris Glendening appointee candidate.
He said that allowing independents to vote for judicial candidates would have helped him "lock up" his seat in the primaries. Still, he believes the existing system is a good one.
"I don't see any sense at all in doing away with the primaries," Cavanaugh said.
He said candidates who want to move on to the General Election can also register as an independent.
"Theoretically, you could register as all three, lose both primaries and still be in the General Election," Cavanaugh said.