Ehrlich names gay to bench

District Court pick 1 of 4 appointments

June 24, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican whose new advertising campaign seeks to convince voters that he governs from the political center, named an openly gay judge to serve on the Baltimore District Court yesterday.

Ehrlich appointed Christopher Panos, 47, a special master in the city Circuit Court family division, to a fill a court vacancy. Panos and his partner of 17 years, Dennis Cashen, are raising a young daughter, Cate.

"This is indicative of social progress within the form of a judicial nomination," Panos said last night in an interview.

The governor's appointment comes a little more than a week after he fired one of his appointees to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Robert J. Smith, for asserting on a Montgomery County cable talk show that homosexuals lived a life of "sexual deviancy."

Ehrlich - who says his politics are shaped by a libertarian bent - has tread carefully around gay issues since being elected governor with strong crossover support from Democrats.

The governor's balancing act was on display during this year's General Assembly session, after a Baltimore judge ruled that Maryland's law prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Ehrlich first said he did not think a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman was necessary, then said an amendment was necessary.

Speaking on radio station WBAL this year, Ehrlich indicated he would only appoint appellate judges who saw eye to eye with him on social and political questions - noting that the winner of the 2006 governor's race would name three Court of Appeals judges because of retirements.

"The people need to understand that the executive appoints judges, and a particular philosophical orientation is going to be reflected in a governor's selections," Ehrlich said. "My judges certainly reflect my philosophical orientation."

With yesterday's District Court announcement, Ehrlich runs the risk of alienating more conservative members of his party.

"I am dismayed and in total disbelief that the governor would appoint a gay judge," said Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who sought the impeachment of the Baltimore judge who ruled in the gay marriage case. "I certainly hope he knows what he's doing in light of the upcoming elections in November."

David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said that if Panos is qualified for the bench, his sexual orientation should not be a factor.

"I'm going to assume that this governor knows all there is about his appointments," Paulson said. "And if that's the case, and if this gentleman is competent and talented, then he has finally done something right. And it's too bad we waited for an election year to see this from the governor."

Del. Richard S. Madaleno Sr., a Montgomery County Democrat who is gay, said, "There's no question that it sends a message to the gay community that [Ehrlich] is a moderate on these issues when it comes to appointing talented people, no matter what their sexual orientation.

"But the biggest problem I think he faces in the gay community is that he has been a vocal proponent of a constitutional amendment that would single us out as the only class of people deprived of a specific right in our state constitution," he said.

Last year, Ehrlich vetoed a bill to allow same-sex couples to make medical decisions for each other, angering gay-rights advocates. The same day, he chose not to veto a bill expanding the definition of hate crimes to include crimes committed because of the victim's sexual orientation.

The governor's office did not mention Panos' family status in the news release that announced the appointments.

Panos and Henry Fawell, the governor's spokesman, said sexual orientation did not come up in discussions about his qualifications during the nomination process.

A University of Baltimore School of Law graduate, Panos said he has known Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, for years. Kendel Ehrlich, 44, also attended UB's law school. He is the son of Lou Panos, a longtime Baltimore journalist who was a spokesman for former Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

"Certainly if, as a society, we can progress together and embrace our cultural diversity, then we will become all the better for it," Christopher Panos said.

The governor named three other judges to Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday:

Yvette M. Bryant, a lawyer working in private practice at the firm of Bryant, Karpinski, Colaresi & Karp, has specialized in defense litigation.

John A. Howard, an associate at the firm of Sagal, Cassin, Filbert and Quasney, P.A., in Towson, specializing in state and local government cases, as well as real estate lawsuits.

Timothy J. Doory, a city District Court judge for 10 years, recently spoke out against witness intimidation as "striking at the heart of the justice system." Earlier in his career, he was a criminal prosecutor for the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Panos fills Doory's position in District Court.

Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, nominated one openly gay judge: Halee F. Weinstein. Her appointment to the Baltimore District Court was confirmed by the state Senate in 2003, shortly after Ehrlich took office.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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