By KIT SLACK

From fentanyl busts, to zoning disputes, to redistricting, to lawsuits against police, circuit court judges decide who is on the right side of the law.

In the primary election May 14, voters will decide which four out of five candidates will be judges for Mayland’s Circuit Court for Prince George’s County.

Circuit court in Maryland is trial court for major civil cases and serious criminal cases, along with those involving juveniles and family court disputes. Judges on your ballot will serve as four of the 23 full-time circuit court judges in the county.  

See below for statements from each candidate. First, here’s some background on judicial elections.

How do circuit court judges get their jobs?

First, Maryland’s governor typically appoints them. To be eligible for appointment, nominees must be U.S. citizens, registered voters and Maryland lawyers at least 30 years of age. They have to have lived in the state for at least five years and in the county for at least six months. 

The governor appoints candidates from lists created by local nominating commissions, which Maryland governors have set up for this purpose in various forms since 1970.

Next, after they are appointed and working, circuit court judges must stand for election; interested candidates may file to run against them if they meet the basic qualifications, without being nominated. Winners of the election serve 15-year terms as judges. They may serve more terms following the same selection process but must retire by age 70.

Are contested judicial elections a good idea?

According to reporting by Maryland Matters, since 2002, more than a dozen judges have lost contested elections across the state. For the thirty years prior to that, judicial elections were more rarely contested. 

An effort to do away with contested judicial elections may lead to a constitutional amendment revising the judicial selection process coming before voters as soon as 2026. 

Those who support judicial elections say elections build public trust in the courts, and are a check on the governor’s power and a not-very-transparent process. Those who oppose judicial elections say fewer qualified candidates will want the jobs if they have to campaign for them, and that campaign contributions could compromise impartiality.

Do all Maryland judges run for office?

Only circuit court judges, who are the trial judges for larger disputes, run for office. 

All other Maryland judges have their appointments confirmed by the Maryland senate. They don’t run in contested elections. The senate confirms the appointment of the district court judges who settle misdemeanor, motor vehicle and landlord tenant cases, as well as other smaller disputes. The senate also approves the appointment of judges in appeals courts and the Maryland Supreme Court. These higher court judges’ names do show up on ballots at the end of ten-year terms for yes-or-no retention votes. No one can run against appellate and supreme court judges — only against circuit court judges.

How did the judges on your ballot this spring get there? 

Former Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Donnell Turner Sept. 2, 2022, and Darren Johnson and Stenise Rolle on Jan. 9, 2023. Gov. Wes Moore appointed Cheri Simpkins Nov. 21, 2023. 

Michael Sheehan is the only candidate who is not currently a judge, and wasn’t appointed by a governor. He is running as a challenger.

How to vote

Polls will be open on May 14 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

Early voting is available May 2 through May 9 at early voting centers. 

Any voter may vote by mail; requests for mail-in ballots, for those not already on the permanent mail-in voter list, must be submitted May 10. To check your registration and request a mail-in ballot, go to tinyurl.com/58kebv8h

Statements from candidates

Below are responses from the five candidates for the four circuit court judge seats. We’ve listed candidates alphabetically by last name. 

DARREN JOHNSON

DarrenJohnsonAge: 47

Professional experience: I currently serve as a judge for the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. This requires me to preside over a wide variety of serious and complicated issues. Prior to my appointment, I served as a domestic magistrate for Prince George’s County for five years, presiding over 12,842 cases. These cases included matters concerning divorce, custody, child support and truancy. Prior to that, I worked in the National Appeals Division for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While at the USDA, I was nominated by my peers and became the first recipient of the Director’s Award for Outstanding Service. This commendation was presented to me for going above and beyond my service to the USDA and the citizens of the United States. Prior to my employment with the USDA, I was in private practice working primarily in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.  

Community involvement: Volunteer at St. Joseph Catholic Church since 1991. Volunteer at Faith Moravian Church of Washington, D.C., since 2002. Volunteer at the Capital Area Food Bank. Play in a softball league. Vice-president of Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County. Participate with the Kappa League for Washington, D.C., Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., assisting in the development of leaders for tomorrow by providing personal, social, academic and economic guidance.   

Statement to voters: I have over 20 years of legal experience. I am a lifelong Prince George’s County resident. I know the community for which I serve, which is invaluable for a jurist applying the law fairly. I have been on the bench for over six years. During that time, I have established a reputation as a fair and consistent jurist making decisions that affect the everyday lives of Marylanders. The recent past has shown Marylanders cannot rely on unvetted judges that have not even set foot in a courthouse. I have been vetted by every major bar association in Maryland. I was nominated by a committee of everyday citizens of Prince George’s County and ultimately selected by the governor of Maryland. 

STENISE ROLLE

image0 2Age: 46

Professional experience: During my 20-plus years in the legal profession, I have worked as a litigator, an administrator of judicial education courses, a magistrate, and now a judge. These roles have prepared me for my current role as a judge on the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County.

My legal career began as a civil litigator, litigating complex wrongful death and personal injury cases. Upon starting my own law firm, I expanded my litigation work to include family law and criminal defense.

A highlight of my career was serving Prince George’s County residents as the director of graduate student legal aid at the University of Maryland College Park. At UMD, I used my passion for helping others to provide clients with the tools and resources needed to address their legal concerns.

My experience also includes working in the administrative office of the courts, where I was the manager of judicial education; responsible for the planning of  educational courses and programming for ALL judges and magistrates throughout the state. Prior to being appointed as a judge, I was a magistrate for the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. 

These combined experiences give me the institutional knowledge regarding the Maryland judicial system, and the skills needed to serve with proficiency, compassion, and integrity.   

Community involvement:

Franklyn Bourne Bar Association, vice president

Prince George’s County Bar Association, executive committee

Maryland Judicial Council’s Equal Justice Committee, Access and Fairness Subcommittee

Workgroup to Study Mandatory CLE [continuing legal education] in Maryland

Judicial Conference Planning Committee

Proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Judge liaison, Prince George’s County Mock Trial Program

Former cheerleading coach

Statement to voters: Experience matters! As an incumbent judge, I understand the importance of this role and the impact it plays in our community. I do not take this responsibility lightly. Further, as I live, work, and serve in Prince George’s County, I want what’s best for the county. I believe what’s best for this county are judges who are knowledgeable, experienced, fair, and care about people. I encompass all those characteristics. A vote for me is a vote for experience, fairness, and a commitment to justice.

MICHAEL SHEEHAN

Michael Sheehan photoAge: 35

Professional experience: As a Marine Corps veteran and public servant, I believe there is no higher professional calling than public service. My time in the military instilled in me the discipline necessary to confront tough issues and the decisiveness needed to resolve them. It also reinforced my progressive values and my belief in a strong sense of community, where folks look out for one another and hold each other accountable.

I currently practice tax law, which touches numerous other areas of the law, so I will bring a unique perspective to the bench and am prepared to handle the diverse array of matters that come before the circuit court.

Community involvement: I am a member of the Maryland State Bar Association, as well as the American Constitution Society, a progressive legal organization whose mission includes helping realize the promise of equality for all, including people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and other historically excluded communities. 

Statement to voters: A judge’s job is to apply the law fairly, impartially, and prudently. I will not be a rubber stamp for any type of litigant, and my courtroom will not be a conveyor belt. I will always listen closely and give careful consideration to what each and every person who comes before me has to say, regardless of their background and circumstances. 

Each of my four opponents was appointed by the former Republican governor (one of them originally to the district court). This May, the voters of Prince George’s County get to tell Larry Hogan NO! one more time, and instead choose someone who shares their progressive values.

CHERI SIMPKINS

simpkins 2024 headshotAge: 50

Professional experience: Having served as a former district court judge for over six years, I upheld the law, facilitated fair trials, and made impartial decisions across criminal, civil, family and traffic cases. Transitioning to my current role as a circuit court judge, I oversee more complex and serious cases, bringing invaluable perspective to adjudication, ensuring procedural fairness, and upholding the rule of law for the community. My 14-year tenure as a prosecutor specializing in child abuse and sexual assault cases contributes to my judicial role, enabling well-informed decisions prioritizing justice, public safety and individual rights. As an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School and the University of Baltimore Legal Studies Program, I am committed to nurturing future legal professionals and promoting fairness and integrity in the legal profession.

Community involvement: As an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Links, Inc., and Jack and Jill of America, I engage in various community initiatives. Within my sorority, I participate in mentoring programs, educational workshops and community service events empowering women and supporting underserved communities. In the Links, Inc., I contribute to cultural enrichment, health and education projects. Within Jack and Jill of America, I organize educational and social activities for children, fostering their development and building community bonds. Additionally, I host programs like Schools in Court, educating teenagers about the legal system and promoting civic engagement. I participate in the Reading and Robes program, fostering literacy and legal awareness among children. My involvement with the Maryland Supreme Court Council for Language Access sub-committee underscores my commitment to linguistic inclusivity and access to justice.

Statement to voters: Retaining current judges in contested elections is vital for bench stability and attracting qualified candidates to Maryland’s circuit courts. Only appointed judges undergo rigorous application process, the scrutiny of 13 specialty bar associations and a gubernatorial nominating commission, a process I’ve faced twice under Gov. Hogan and Gov. Moore. This process ensures the selection of competent and impartial judges. Preserving experienced judges through contested elections maintains institutional knowledge, consistency and judicial independence. It assures the presence of seasoned professionals committed to upholding the law and serving with integrity.

DONNELL TURNER

DonellTurnerAge: 56

Professional experience:

  • Graduate of the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia School of  Law 
  • Former labor and employment attorney 
  • Former assistant state’s attorney for Prince George’s County 
  • Former U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney from 2001 to 2012 (recipient  of numerous DOJ special achievement awards) 
  • Former principal deputy state’s attorney for Prince George’s County 
  • Former inspector general for the Prince George’s County Police Department (2018-22) 
  • Former director of the Prince George’s County Office of Integrity, Compliance, and Police Accountability (2021-22) 
  • Member, Prince George’s County Police Reform Workgroup (2020)  
  • Prince George’s Community College adjunct professor (1998-2017)
  • Recipient, Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association President’s Award (2014)
  • Tried over one hundred jury trials in state and federal courts 

Community involvement: 

  • Prince George’s County Bar Association – Member (2012-present); Board of  Directors (2013-19); Criminal Law Committee (2013-18) 
  • Maryland State Bar Association – Member (2014-present); Judicial  Appointments Committee (2016-22) 
  • J. Franklyn Bourne Bar Association – Member (2015-17; 2021-present) 
  • First Tee of Greater Washington, D.C., Junior Golf Program volunteer coach  (2014-present) 
  • Toys for Tots volunteer (2018-present) 
  • Mock trial and moot court judge (various high school and college competitions  from 2002-present) 

Statement to voters: I am a native of Prince George’s County and the product of the county’s public school system. Following my graduation from the University of Virginia School of  Law, I decided to devote my legal career to public service, and I have spent over 20 years of my career as a public servant in Prince George’s County. In 2022, I was appointed by the governor as a circuit court judge in Prince George’s County. 

My appointment was the culmination of 30 years of hard work and dedication to the legal profession. It also followed a rigorous vetting process in which my experience, character and integrity were carefully evaluated by numerous bar associations and the governor’s own judicial nominating commission before I was selected. There is no greater honor and privilege than having been appointed to serve as an associate judge in the county in which I grew up, and I hope that the voters confirm my appointment when they go to the polls.