Lawmakers called court about redistricting suit

Contacts with Md. judges are reported as possible breaches of ethics code

May 22, 2002|By Michael Dresser and Howard Libit | Michael Dresser and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Four Democratic legislators contacted members of Maryland's highest court in attempts to discuss pending lawsuits challenging the governor's redistricting plan, according to judges.

Legal experts described the contacts - two of them by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller - as improper.

The contacts were disclosed in a notice the Court of Appeals sent to parties to the lawsuits Friday. The statement outlines telephone calls by Miller, Sen. Ida G. Ruben of Montgomery County and Sen. Ulysses Currie of Prince George's County to four appellate judges, as well as a letter sent by Del. Ruth M. Kirk of Baltimore to Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

The court said none of the phone calls was anticipated by the judges involved. The notice also said that in each case, as soon as it became clear that the subject was redistricting, the judge informed the legislator that he or she could not discuss the case.

Bell did not finish reading Kirk's letter and had it returned to her, the notice said.

"Each of these contacts was reported by the judge to the court," the notice concluded. "In no instance did, or will, the contact have any influence or bearing on how the judge, or the court, will respond to the issues pending before it."

Sally Rankin, a spokesman for Maryland's judiciary, said the notice was apparently unprecedented.

News of the contacts came the same day that a special master considering the redistricting lawsuits, retired Judge Robert L. Karwacki, issued an opinion upholding the governor's plan in most respects. He found that changes should be made in two Eastern Shore districts.

State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. issued a memo yesterday to all General Assembly members urging them not to attempt to contact judges about redistricting cases. He said the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct bars judges from considering any communications from legislators regarding pending litigation.

Asked for comment yesterday, Miller, Ruben and Kirk all denied doing anything improper. Currie did not return phone messages seeking details of his call to Bell.

A leading expert on legal ethics called the issue "a no-brainer."

"This is really a question of judicial ethics," Sherman L. Cohn, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. "Judges should not be contacted by a party or by any outside person about a case that is pending. The judges handled it absolutely right."

Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said that in the case of Miller - who is a lawyer - GOP officials are considering lodging a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.

Cohn said a legislator who is a lawyer could be disciplined for going directly to a judge on a pending case.

"They should be investigating this right now," Cohn said. "If he is a lawyer and he did that, that's a violation for legal ethics."

Miller said his contacts with Judges Alan M. Wilner and Glenn T. Harrell Jr. did not involve a pending issue.

He said he contacted the judges to complain about a decision they had already handed down on who would bear the burden of proof before a special master considering the lawsuits. Miller said the court was wrong when it put the burden on the state to prove the redistricting law is constitutional.

"There's nothing wrong with speaking to a judge about a case that is over," said Miller, of Prince George's County. "I just told them what I thought about an order that's been rendered."

Miller, who has often clashed with leaders of the judicial branch, described the notice issued by the court as "a love note to me from Judge Bell." The two men have frequently been at odds over a variety of issues, including judicial pay.

The contacts by Miller and the other Democrats prompted a vigorous protest yesterday by Republican Party leaders. They said the telephone calls and letter raised suspicions that the legislators were trying to influence the outcome of the cases.

"The fact that they contacted four judges to me raises some questions," Steele said at a hastily called news conference. "I think it was somewhat orchestrated. They divided up the judges amongst themselves."

Miller dismissed the GOP complaints. "This is all power politics on the part of the Republican Party," he said. "This is Michael Steele at his best."

Like Miller, Ruben denied there was any coordinated effort to influence the court. She portrayed her phone conversation with Judge Irma S. Raker as an innocent inquiry.

The senator said that while talking with Raker, a longtime friend, more than a month ago she asked whether it would be appropriate to discuss redistricting with her.

"She said it's inappropriate, and I said fine," Ruben said. "I was just going to ask her what was the time frame, what the process was."

Kirk said she is not a lawyer and did know there was anything wrong about writing a letter to a judge about the governor's redistricting plan.

"They can say what they want to say. Republicans always say what they want to say anyway," she said.

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