Process Underway To Replace Local Judge

SNOW HILL – The process
to find a replacement for longtime Worcester County Circuit Court Judge
Theodore Eschenberg, who officially retired in late June having reached the
mandatory retirement age of 70, formally began this week.

Eschenberg served nearly
three decades on the Worcester County Circuit Court bench, including the last
18 as the county’s administrative judge and chief judge of the state’s 1st
Judicial Circuit, although he continues to preside over cases in the county in
a visiting judge capacity. His retirement created a vacancy on the Worcester
County Circuit Court bench, a seat advertised this week for the first time on
the state’s judicial website.

The Maryland Judicial
Nominating Committee this week posted a deadline date of Aug. 11 for potential
candidates to file for the vacancy. Once the Aug. 11 deadline to apply for the
vacancy passes, the Judicial Nominating Committee will interview each of the
candidates and pare down a smaller list to present to Governor Martin O’Malley,
who will ultimately make the appointment. The list of potential nominees will
not be made public until the deadline passes.

It remains uncertain
whom or how many among the county’s legal community will apply for the
judgeship. Historically, sitting District Court judges apply for nomination and
are ultimately appointed to fill vacancies in higher courts, but there is
plenty of precedent for an attorney or other private sector individual gaining
an appointment to a Circuit Court vacancy.

The qualifications of a
judge fall into distinct categories including legal, professional and personal.
A qualified candidate has to have U.S. and Maryland citizenship, be registered
to vote in state elections at the time of the appointment, be a resident of
Maryland for at least five years and a resident for at least six months prior
to the appointment in the geographic area where the vacancy exists. Other
qualifications include being at least 30 years of age at the time of the
appointment and current membership in the Maryland Bar.

The Judicial Nominating
Committee will review the qualifications of the applicants on or before its
meeting on Sept. 28 and forward a short list to the governor shortly
thereafter. The governor will then make an appointment from the list forwarded
by the committee. It is uncertain what would happen if the appointment process
dragged on beyond the November election.

While the process to
replace Eschenberg began this week in earnest, the transition in the venerable
old courthouse in Snow Hill is already well underway. Since July 1, Judge
Thomas C. Groton, who has been a Worcester County Circuit Court associate judge
since 1990, has been elevated to county administrative judge for Worcester
County and chief judge of the First Judicial Circuit, which includes the four
counties on the Lower Shore.

In addition to handling
his typical docket, Groton is now handling the administrative duties associated
with his new title including personnel issues, budget issues and day-to-day
operations of the court. Groton is certainly no stranger to the operations of
the Circuit Court, having served along side the retired Eschenberg for two

“As far as the
administrative duties, that hasn’t been too much of a departure from what I’ve
been doing all along,” Groton said yesterday. “One of the biggest pluses is
having Circuit Court Administrator Dick Outten with us. He has been doing this
for a long time and he keeps us going on the right track.”

Groton is in the process
of moving over to the historic Courtroom 1 and Eschenberg’s former chambers,
while Associate Circuit Court Judge Richard Bloxom is moving up to Courtroom 2
and eventually Groton’s chambers. For that reason, the vacancy created in the
Worcester County Circuit Court is essentially for the Family Court, which
Bloxom has occupied since a third Circuit Court judge for Worcester County was
approved a few years back.

Groton said yesterday
the physical transition has been more difficult thus far then any administrative

“The biggest thing for
me so far has been the process of moving over to Courtroom 1 and all that
entails,” he said. “After 20 years or so in Courtroom 2, it’s a big endeavor to
move over to the other courtroom and the other chambers, while still presiding
over a fairly weighty docket. It’s been a chore, but it’s a necessary chore.”

Groton said the changes
in the hierarchy of the Circuit Court system in Worcester County came from
Chief Administrative Judge for the First Judicial Circuit Daniel Long, with
input from himself and Bloxom.

“That all came from
Danny Long after some discussions we had in advance of Judge Eschenberg’s
retirement,” he said. “There are practical and logical reasons for the way it
was handled. Judge Bloxom spend a lot of time as a District Court judge and
expressed a desire to handle criminal and civil cases. Essentially, the vacancy
now being advertised is for the Family Court division.”