(Left to right) Judges Audrey J.S. Carrion, Wanda Keyes Heard, Karen C. Friedman, Michael A. DiPietro, Cynthia H. Jones and Shannon E. Avery are seeking re-election as the sitting judges. (Courtesy photo)

City Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Jones said she often has to explain the process by which judges get and keep their jobs.

“One of the things that citizens say is they either don’t know why we run, or that ‘Oh my God, we have to vote for judges?’ or it’s ‘You shouldn’t have to run.’”

Jones is one of six sitting circuit court judges who will appear on ballots on April 26. If elected, they will serve for 15 years. Because of Maryland codes of conduct, there is much that the judges can’t publically talk about – for example, they cannot discuss their opinions on prison reform, drug laws or who should be the next president because it could call in to question their ability to be impartial. But, they can talk about the process by which they got their jobs in the first place. Jones, along with Judge Michael DiPietro spoke with the {Afro} about the vetting process and why they think it’s a good thing.

“What I explain to people is our system in Maryland is a bifurcated process,” Jones said. “We’re vetted by the bar associations, that’s the first arm, then we’re vetted by the judicial nomination which involves lawyers and laypeople appointed from the bar, the community and from the governor and then we’re vetted by the governor. But it’s bifurcated in that right after you’re appointed, in the first general election, in the state of Maryland, they say that the community has to make a decision about the decision. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Jones said that in years past, it would have been harder for judges of color or women to make it to the bench, because the people nominating and vetting them weren’t diverse. She said that has changed over time.

“Historically, it’s become better. Because at some point, you had the state bar association and city bar association in Baltimore and a small handful of specialty bar associations involved in the process. During our generation, specialty bars have expanded…to include Black lawyers, the Hispanic bar, the Asian Pacific bar, and the lesbian gay transgender bisexual bar so you’re really talking about not just attorneys who identify with those organizations but you also deal with constituencies who identify with those organizations.”

Five of the sitting judge candidates are women and three of those women are of color.

“It keeps it honest,” Jones added. “Prior to then, people of color, and women — even Italian Americans like Michael, may not have been chosen the traditional pathway so they had to run an election against what was perceived to be the establishment. But with the expansion of the specialty bar, you get a more diverse bench.”

In Baltimore’s Circuit Court race, there are two candidates who have chosen to circumvent the pathway by which Jones and DiPietro were nominated – they are city public defender Todd Oppenheim and current District 1 City Councilman James B. Kraft.

In an earlier interview with the {Afro} Oppenheim said that he was running specifically to address issues of criminal justice reform. “It’s so silly that we talk about criminal justice reform and we never continue the conversation to judges. I mean, they give the sentences out,” he said.

Jones and DiPietro also discussed the process by which they are vetted, which they said was thorough. They said the entire process – from interviews with bar associations to governor’s approval – could take several months.

DiPietro said that the process allowed those interviewing him to get to know him on a deeper level.

“I’ve lived in Baltimore my whole life so I know a lot of people, I know a lot of lawyers,” he said. “But I was in the U.S Attorney’s Office for the last 14 years of my career so I didn’t practice in the Baltimore City Circuit Court every day. That vetting process was a means for people who are stakeholders to get to know who I am both professionally and to some extent personally.”

The judges running with Jones and DiPietro are Judge Shannon E. Avery, Judge Audrey J.S. Carrion, Judge Karen C. Friedman and Judge Wanda Keyes Heard.

The group was recently endorsed by Baltimore Attorney Billy Murphy, who negotiated a $6.4 million settlement for the family of Freddie Gray and is currently engaged in a class-action lawsuit with the city of Flint, Michigan over lead in the resident’s water.

“These judges have excellent experience and come from diverse backgrounds, reflecting the citizenry of the city of Baltimore,” Murphy says in a video that was sent to “The Afro.” “They are exactly what we need.”