Citing a need “to bring more accountability, transparency, diversity, and representation to the courthouse,” Silver Spring resident Alan Bowser has launched his second bid to become the first person of color to be elected Clerk of the Circuit Court in Montgomery County.
“There’s never been a representative of color in the leadership of the courthouse, that could be 242 years in the County’s history,” he said. “Our goal is to open up the courthouse to different voices and bring people with different ideas and complexions to the table.”
Bowser, 65, a Democrat and attorney in the County since 1995, also ran for the Clerk’s office in 2014. The reason he is challenging incumbent Barbara Meiklejohn, he explained, is because the courthouse does not currently represent the community it serves; if elected he will look to maintain a high standard of professionalism and performance among the court’s staff.
“We believe that the clerk and courthouse officials can be more present in the community,” he said. “It’s not enough to go to a couple of parades and the NAACP Freedom Dinner … the clerk, in particular, could be more proactive in community engagement.”
Bowser explained that he wants to “bring the courthouse to the community” by expanding outreach to the County’s immigrant population.
“Many of them are unfamiliar with the workings of the courts, and they don’t know they could go to the courts for a redress of disputes,” he said.
Juror pay and funding for legal aid are two issues for which the clerk could advocate effectively, Bowser said.
Montgomery County currently compensates jurors $15 a day for the first five days. If a juror’s service extends beyond five days, the pay is increased to $50 a day. Bowser called the current pay an “anachronism” and said the issue required a “serious conversation.”
“Jury duty is a responsibility of an enlightened citizenry, and it can take its toll if somebody is called to appear for duty or serve on trials and $15 might barely cover the cost of transportation and would barely cover for lunch,” he said.
Legal aid funding, Bowser explained, consistently suffers from shortages in the Maryland State Budget.
“It’s expensive, but it’s really important, and people get charged with complicated offenses, so they really need a lawyer to help them maneuver the law and legal system,” he said.
Bowser explained that, with his professional background at the World Bank, Department of Commerce and numerous state and local government positions, he would bring a “staff-centered” approach to the office.
Loretta Knight, who was elected as the clerk in 2006 and served until her retirement in 2014, explained that experience is one of the key issues voters consider when selecting a clerk.
“By having experience in the job, then you can make sure all of your departments are following the rules,” she said. “It’s a very responsible position, it’s not a position to be taken lightly … and you need to have experience because there is so much diversity in all that we handle that if you don’t have the experience you’re going to have trouble.”
Knight said the office was established in 1658 in St. Mary’s County to keep court records accurately and impartially, emphasizing that the clerk does not tell people how to file but to make sure they properly complete their filings.
She explained that the clerk’s duties had changed little since then and the position oversees the civil, criminal, family, juvenile and numerous other divisions within the circuit court system as well as officiating marriages and oaths of office to elected officials across the County.
“The clerk’s office is there to serve the public,” Knight said. “When you file something, you have to feel comfortable that it’s going to go through the proper channels.”
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D), who represents District 18 in the Maryland House of Delegates and is running for the County Council in District 1, said she supports Bowser’s candidacy.
“I believe he is very well qualified for the position and I think we need different leadership in the clerk’s office,” she said.