Who Can Serve in the Legislature?

January 03, 1995

It looks like Del.-elect James E. Malone Jr. of southwest Baltimore County got some bum advice months ago when a high-ranking county personnel official told him he could occupy a seat in the House of Delegates while working as a local firefighter. This official apparently did not know that Maryland's Constitution forbids firefighters, police and other sworn holders of "offices of profit" from serving simultaneously as elected politicians.

Lately Mr. Malone has been looking at a tough choice. Firefighter or legislator? Opting for Annapolis means he would lose out on his firefighter's retirement benefits. Enter Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a one-time road accident victim with a soft spot for emergency workers. The executive has come to Mr. Malone's aid by proposing legislation that would, in effect, change his official job description so he could serve in the legislature and maintain his firefighter's position (along with the benefits thereof).

The propriety of public employees as state legislators has been debated for years. The Maryland attorney general's office has issued numerous opinions on the topic. All of them are based on laws and court rulings, though that doesn't mean they are always clear and consistent. For example, deputy sheriffs have been judged not to be "officials of profit" because their duties have not been formally laid out by law, as have those of police officers. Yet, in many jurisdictions, deputies are the local police. Deputies also can serve in the legislature.

The Baltimore County Council, which is scheduled to vote on the Ruppersberger bill today, is correct to be wary of a measure that might set an unwanted precedent for preferential treatment of a public official. Council members must realize that special action to help a fellow pol would not sit well with an electorate that so recently vented its anger against incumbents and "politics as usual."

A special bill might be rendered unnecessary if, as is expected, Mr. Malone's job description is redefined by his department superiors to the satisfaction of the state. All might end well for the delegate-elect from Arbutus, but the clutter of so-called guidelines for such situations won't be altered at all. Legislators should take a hard look at a constitutional revision that would clearly describe who can and which office-holders cannot sit in Maryland's legislature. Otherwise, incidents like the Malone case will be repeated, with the same needless confusion and worry that has occurred these past few weeks in Baltimore County.

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