Looking for someone with integrity to represent the law

July 02, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Maryland's political version of musical chairs resumed last week with the announcement that Stuart O. Simms would run for attorney general.

But wait a minute. Wasn't Mr. Simms trying to become lieutenant governor? Now he wants to be attorney general?

Yes and no, he could say. He wanted back into political life, having served years ago as Baltimore's state's attorney and secretary of corrections under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

After some quiet years in private practice, he joined Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in a race for the State House.

Mr. Simms made that move when it seemed as if J. Joseph Curran Jr. wanted to be attorney general for life. Then Mr. Curran belatedly announced his decision to retire.

And then Mr. Duncan announced he was leaving the race to address a diagnosis of clinical depression. Enter Stuart Simms as dangling man.

But there was immediate speculation - and a fair amount of urging - to see him become a candidate for attorney general. On Thursday, he said he would.

Several other candidates, waiting for Mr. Curran to go, had entered the race weeks ago.

Late last year, another potential candidate for attorney general also chose to run for lieutenant governor. Del. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's County became Mayor Martin O'Malley's running rate. There was no turning back for him.

Mr. Simms' entry gives the still voter-rich Baltimore region a candidate. He will be running in the Democratic primary against two men from Montgomery County: Thomas E. Perez, head of the County Council there, and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.

Mr. Simms might have an arithmetic advantage. He has considerable name recognition and a solid electoral record in the Baltimore area. And he could benefit from a spirited race that splits the Montgomery County vote between Mr. Perez and Mr. Gansler.

Mr. Simms is not noted for a galvanic campaign presence, but those who saw him on the Duncan team say he was energized and effective.

His entry in the race could be of some concern to both Montgomery County candidates, who might have hoped their home turf would be the only meaningful battleground.

Mr. Gansler has more of a profile than either of his primary opponents, but that's not an unalloyed benefit.

He comes to the race with the reputation of someone who has unbridled ambition and seeks publicity.

His tendencies in that direction have earned him a reprimand from the state's Court of Appeals. In a 2003 ruling, the high court found Mr. Gansler had made prejudicial comments on the guilt of two men accused of murder. Citing an earlier decision, the court observed that prosecutors (such as Mr. Gansler) are held to "even higher standards of conduct than other attorneys due to their unique role as both advocate and minister of justice. ... The prosecutor's duty is not merely to convict but to seek justice."

The court found that in two cases where he spoke about accused men, "he knew or should have known that his public opinions ... would have a substantial likelihood of material prejudice."

The court said its official reprimand "communicates to Gansler and other members of the bar that improper extrajudicial statements dangerously jeopardize the foundational principles of our system of criminal justice."

What Mr. Gansler said to provoke the court came during a news conference in connection with the murder case. He said, "The police were able to obtain a confession completely consistent with [the accused's] constitutional rights. He confessed within just a few hours with incredible details that only the murderer would have known."

Comments of this sort by figures of authority about evidence that might not be admissible in court undermine the system's effort to guarantee a fair trial, the court held.

The court's ruling gained considerable attention in the legal community, members of whom are concerned that someone reprimanded by the state's highest court might become the state's attorney general. The ruling pushed some influential members of the bar toward Mr. Perez. And some of them, particularly in the Baltimore region, may now be taking a look at Mr. Simms.

The Gansler campaign, meanwhile, chooses now to present this history as something of a strength. If he spoke out of turn, he did it in service to "opening the windows of justices so all could see how it works," says Michael Morrill, a Gansler spokesman.

"He got his knuckles rapped. He won't do it again, but he still thinks he was right to open the process," he said.

The political process, at least, is well under way, with the race for attorney general moving up to the marquee with the races for governor and U.S. Senate.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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