Noting approaching Baltimore city elections and the need for a definitive statewide ruling, the state prosecutor is appealing a circuit judge's decision striking down the ban on Election Day "walk-around" money.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli filed formal notice yesterday in Prince George's Circuit Court to appeal the April 24 decision by Judge Richard H. Sothoron Jr., who declared unconstitutional a state law barring the payment of Election Day workers.
"We need a statewide opinion," said Montanarelli, noting that technically Sothoron's ruling applies only to Prince George's county.
He said the legality of the ban needs to be clarified before Baltimore's mayoral and council primaries in September.
"We can envision some very difficult Election Day problems without the law ... problems that could call into question the validity of an election," he said.
The next step, he said, will be to file a petition with the Maryland Court of Appeals, asking that panel to review the decision. If the court agrees to hear the case, Montanarelli said, he will ask that the three individual cases involved be consolidated to expedite the appeal process.
Larry Nathans, lead attorney for the defendants, expressed confidence that the circuit court decision would be upheld and called handing out campaign literature on Election Day "as American as apple pie."
"We do not think any appellate court is going to say it should be a crime," Nathans said, adding that the law "doesn't make sense."
Sothoron's April 24 decision was in the case of three defendants charged with violating the 1979 law by recruiting workers to distribute literature at the polls for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2002 election effort.
In an eight-page decision, Sothoron concluded that the law violated constitutionally protected rights to free speech.
"The reality is that [the law] is unlimited in its geographic scope, thus providing no guidance whatsoever as to how the conduct is to be controlled on election day in Maryland," Sothoron wrote.
The judge dismissed criminal charges filed against Shirley R. Brookins, 56, head of a Washington employment agency; Rashida Hogg, 23, of Silver Spring; and Steven P. Martin, 31, of Capitol Heights. If convicted, they could have received a year in jail and been fined up to $25,000 each.
Brookins was charged over her role in recruiting Election Day workers from a Washington homeless shelter. The charges against Hogg and Martin stemmed from the recruitment of students to hand out Ehrlich campaign literature on Nov. 4 in Prince George's County.
Montanarelli said he remains convinced that the 1979 law meets constitutional standards and does not unduly restrict free speech rights.
"We believe there is a compelling state interest in banning these payments," he said.
After the April 24 ruling, Montanarelli's staff conceded that because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on similar statutes, the chances of winning an appeal would be slim.
After the circuit court decision, a federal appeals court struck down portions of a new federal law restricting campaign spending in federal elections.