Politics fills space around judicial vacancy

Some say Ehrlich wants friend on list of nominees

Allegany seat empty since 2004

August 28, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Criminal cases are piling up in Allegany County, where a political standoff has left the District Court operating with one full-time judge since late last year.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who selects judges, was given the names of three candidates for the county's judicial vacancy by a nominating panel in December. But nine months later, he has yet to interview any of the finalists. As a result, Allegany County now has the longest-standing judicial vacancy in the state.

Some Republican leaders and court officials in Western Maryland say the holdup isn't because of who was nominated but who was not. The list does not include the name of Kevin Kelly, a Democratic state delegate from Allegany County and a longtime Ehrlich friend. Kelly applied for the position, but his candidacy was rejected by the panel.

"The governor and Kevin are very good friends, and the governor wanted Kevin Kelly," said Raymond Walker, a Republican who retired four years ago after serving more than four decades as elected clerk and in other posts in Allegany County Circuit Court.

John N. Bambacus, a former Republican state senator who teaches political science at Frostburg State University, called the District Court situation "a circus."

"It seems to me this appointment has languished far too long, and there is some question as to whether justice is being served," Bambacus said.

Through a spokesman, Ehrlich affirmed his admiration of Kelly but did not address whether he was working to place his friend and former General Assembly colleague on the bench.

"Governor Ehrlich considers Delegate Kelly a close friend and a committed public servant," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "The governor also has a great respect for the judicial nominating process. There is no deadline for the governor to make an appointment. He continues to give thoughtful consideration to this vacancy."

The episode provides a glimpse into the often-hidden world of judicial politics. On one side is a local power structure that has coalesced around a favored candidate. On the other is a first-term governor who does not back away from fights and rarely demonstrates a taste for compromising or deal-making.

Stuck in the middle are the users of the court system in Allegany County. The criminal docket is being scheduled into January, when normally cases would be heard in November, court officials say.

"The governor's first responsibility is to serve justice, not his friends," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "He needs to appoint someone qualified very quickly. If he's delaying appointing somebody because he wants Kevin to be a judge, that's wrong. I can't think of any other reason why he hasn't appointed somebody by now."

As lawmakers in their 20s new to Annapolis in the 1980s, Ehrlich and Kelly became friends, even though they are from different political parties and opposite sides of the state. The outgoing, single lawyers sat a few seats apart on the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, sharing a right-of-center worldview and an appetite for late-night policy chats followed by burgers at greasy haunts.

Since then, Ehrlich's political career has soared while Kelly's has remained static. Voters turned him out of office after two terms, and then he reclaimed his Assembly seat in 1998.

Last year, a vacancy opened up on the bench when one of the two District Court judges in Allegany County retired. Kelly put his name in for the job, as did four others.

"The governor knows I would very much like to be a District Court judge. That's as far as I am going to comment," Kelly said in an interview last week. "Bob Ehrlich and I are close friends. We know each other's capabilities."

District Court judges earn $114,502 yearly. As a delegate, Kelly earns $40,500.

But when the judicial nominating panel that Ehrlich appointed forwarded its list of three names to the governor, Kelly's was not among them. Instead, the panel recommended two other Democrats and Gregory H. Getty, a lawyer who is the son of a retired Court of Special Appeals judge and a member of a prominent Republican family.

"It would appear that Governor Ehrlich has lost control of the judicial nominating commission," said Bambacus, the Frostburg professor.

Critics of Kelly said they weren't surprised he wasn't on the list.

"The general consensus is that Kevin is not qualified," said Walker, the longtime court clerk.

State Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat who served with Kelly on the House Judiciary Committee for several years, offered sharper criticism.

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