Lawyers say ban on hiring for polls is unconstitutional

Motion seeks dismissal of indictment against employment agency head

February 21, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Maryland's prohibition against hiring workers to distribute campaign material on Election Day is unconstitutional, says a woman accused of recruiting homeless people to work Nov. 5 on behalf of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s ticket.

The laws, which date to the 1970s, violate First Amendment protections because they "criminalize political speech," said a motion filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court yesterday by attorneys for Shirley R. Brookins, head of a Washington employment agency.

The motion said it sought the dismissal of an indictment against her "because the election statutes she is charged under violate the First Amendment."

Brookins was indicted in December and accused of paying homeless people from a Washington shelter to work the election on behalf of Ehrlich and his running mate, Michael S. Steele.

A representative of State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli was present at the shelter Nov. 6 when more than 100 of the workers gathered in front of a van to collect $150 each for their services the day before.

Montanarelli said yesterday that this wasn't the first instance in which partisan poll workers were allegedly paid for Election Day "walk-around services."

"I believe it's been going on for years," he said. "We certainly don't have the resources to monitor every polling place during a general election. This time, we were fortunate in receiving a complaint."

He would not say who made the complaint.

Yesterday's motion, filed by Baltimore lawyers Larry Nathans and Booth M. Ripke, did not address whether Brookins recruited the workers for services that, the indictment alleged, included handing out literature and "accosting voters outside the polls."

Rather, Brookins' lawyers maintained that the state improperly restricts legitimate Election Day activities.

"Many grassroots candidates and parties, including [in] state and county elections, rely on Election Day advocacy to get the word out," their motion said. "To prohibit them from paying advocates even one dollar to hand out [fliers] at an election day rally, while corporate sponsored candidates can spend millions the night before flooding the media with paid advocacy, is an overly broad prohibition."

Montanarelli said he hadn't yet read the motion, but said the state might cite a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case, Buckley V. Valeo, upholding a government's right to regulate campaigns to prevent the appearance of corruption.

Neither Montanarelli nor Nathans said they knew of any previous challenge to the Maryland laws.

The trial is scheduled for May 12 before Circuit Judge Richard H. Sothoron Jr.

The workers from the homeless shelter were joined on Election Day by dozens of students, who said they had been recruited to hand out Ehrlich literature in Prince George's County. The students, however, said they were never paid as promised.

Last month, two Ehrlich campaign workers were also indicted for allegedly hiring people to perform Election Day services.

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