Circuit judge ballot causing confusion

The election signs are all over Salisbury’s neighborhoods.

There’s a buzz that there’s a pending election to select a Circuit Court judge to serve the county for at least the next 15 years.

Yet, it seems only a handful of potential voters have a full grasp about what’s up in the June 23 primary. Because who sits in a judge’s seat and rules on big cases is important, voters might be somewhat annoyed by the confusion.

The election pits two figures who are well known in the Salisbury legal community.

Judge Jimmy Sarbanes, a lifelong Salisbury resident and product of a prominent Democratic family, was sworn-in in March to a new seat that the legislature created.

Previously a partner in the Laws & Sarbanes law firm, Sarbanes was appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley from among three vetted judicial applicants.

Challenging the appointment is M.J. Caldwell, who has also placed his name in contention for previous open judgeships. He is a partner at Caldwell & Whitehead.

Caldwell has a successful 30-year law career and has run previously as a Republican for County Council.

State law requires that newly appointed judges stand for election in the first voting cycle following their elevation. That puts Sarbanes before the voters this year.

Having been passed over for the new judgeship (Caldwell was among three selected finalists considered by the governor), Caldwell decided to challenge Sarbanes.

State procedures seek to keep the races nonpartisan, therefore, both men’s names will appear on the June Republican and Democratic primary ballots without any attached party affiliations.

To escape a second matchup on the November ballot, one man would need to deliver a knockout blow to the other, by winning on both the Republican and Democratic ballots.

The conventional wisdom is that — in the primary stage — Republicans will support Caldwell and Democrats will back Sarbanes. That would set off a more-standard November confrontation in which whoever receives the most votes, wins.

The process is perhap as confusing as it is locally unprecedented.

The seat was created as a Wicomico County Circuit Court judgeship — the county’s fourth — but the post requires that judge spend two weeks a month in Dorchester County because that county is also short of judicial resources, according to the statistics.

The judgeship pays $144,908 annually.

Sarbanes is a graduate of the Widener University School of Law, Salisbury University and Wicomico Senior High School. He is married and has four children.

Caldwell is a graduate of The Tulane University of Louisiana law school and Georgetown University. He is married and has three sons.


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