Miller accused of ethics breach

GOP says Senate leader tried to influence court

Redistricting suits at issue

Other Democrats might be named in complaints

May 31, 2002|By Howard Libit and Tim Craig | Howard Libit and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Maryland's Republican Party filed a legal ethics complaint yesterday against Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller for contacting appellate judges who are considering lawsuits against the governor's redistricting plan.

The GOP - which says it also plans to file legislative ethics complaints against Miller and four other Democratic lawmakers as soon as today - alleged in a letter to Maryland's Attorney Grievance Commission that Miller's phone calls to two judges violated ethical standards required of lawyers.

Miller is a lawyer with offices in Prince George's County.

"The contact between Senator Miller and the judges and his attempt, as I see it, to influence the outcome of the redistricting process was unethical and possibly illegal," said Michael S. Steele, the state Republican Party chairman. "I want an investigation to make sure this process has not been tainted."

Miller has denied doing anything improper, saying that his phone calls were about previous judicial rulings - not about what's currently before the state's highest court.

The Court of Appeals is weighing 14 legal challenges to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's redistricting plan for the General Assembly.

A special court master recommended last week that all but one of the lawsuits be rejected, calling for small modifications to two districts on the Eastern Shore.

On the day the special master issued his report, Miller and two other Democratic senators - Ida G. Ruben of Montgomery County and Ulysses Currie of Prince George's County - were identified by the court as having called judges to talk about redistricting.

Del. Ruth M. Kirk of Baltimore, also a Democrat, wrote a letter to the chief judge, the court said in its one-page statement.

This week, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell revealed in a statement that another senator had contacted him to discuss redistricting - Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat and the Senate majority leader.

Bell said he had "overlooked" the meeting when the court released its earlier statement.

Blount invited Bell into his Annapolis office March 8 "without informing Chief Judge Bell of the purpose of the meeting" and then "raised the issue of redistricting," according to the court's statement. Blount did not return a phone message yesterday.

In every instance, the judges reported cutting off the conversations as soon as it became apparent the lawmakers wanted to discuss redistricting, and they said none of the contacts will influence their pending decisions. The court has scheduled a hearing June 10 on the special master's report.

The lawmakers said they don't believe they did anything wrong. In several cases, they said they were simply seeking information on how the legal process worked.

"Before I said anything to the judge, I asked if it was appropriate and when she said it was not, it was the end of our conversation," Ruben said this week. "I did not want to do anything inappropriate and that is what I would say to the Ethics Commission if they asked.

"If Mr. Steele feels he has to do that, that is his prerogative," she said.

It is not clear what the State Ethics Commission or the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics would do with any such complaints.

"There is nothing in Maryland public ethics law that deals with this situation," said William G. Somerville, attorney for the joint committee.

But Republican officials say that a letter sent last week by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. reminding lawmakers that they're not supposed to contact judges about redistricting litigation provides the basis for the ethics complaints.

Miller - who did not return a phone message to his law office yesterday - has said that he only wanted to criticize prior rulings in the redistricting litigation.

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