Ehrlich picks judges in final week

Two vacancies on Baltimore Circuit Court will be filled

January 12, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN REPORTER

With less than a week left in his term, outgoing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed two lawyers to the Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday, including one from the governor's old law firm.

Ehrlich's nomination of Pamela J. White, a principal of Ober/Kaler in Baltimore, comes after the governor rejected a list of six candidates proposed by the judicial nomination commission for Baltimore last fall.

White's name, along with that of fellow appointee George L. Russell III, an assistant U.S. attorney, was on a second list the commission sent to Ehrlich this month. The two will fill vacancies left by the retirement of Judges Clifton J. Gordy and Joseph P. McCurdy Jr.

Governors generally select judicial appointees from a list prepared by local nomination commissions who are themselves gubernatorial appointees. The panels are generally a mix of lawyers and laypeople.

Ehrlich's rejection of the first list of nominees is not unprecedented. In 2000, Gov. Parris N. Glendening sent back a list of judicial candidates proposed by the nominating commission in Baltimore County, complaining that African-Americans were not represented.

Neither White nor Russell applied for the judgeships before Ehrlich rejected the first list of six candidates last fall. Both were on a list of seven new recommended candidates chosen from a list of 16 applicants.

Neither the governor's spokesman, Henry Fawell, nor his counsel, Jervis S. Finney, returned calls from The Sun. Ehrlich leaves office Wednesday, when Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley will take the oath of office.

The rejection of the Baltimore list may not be the first time Ehrlich has disagreed with a nominating panel. In 2004, the nominating panel for Allegany County found Democratic Del. Kevin Kelly, a longtime friend of Ehrlich's, unqualified for a seat on the District Court. In an apparent standoff with the commission, Ehrlich held the seat open until February of last year, when he finally named another candidate.

Unlike district or appellate judges, circuit judges are not subject to confirmation by the state Senate. But to keep their seats, the two new judges would have to face city voters in 2008 in a race for a 15-year term that could be contested by other lawyers who aspire to the bench.

White, 54, chairs the Employment Law Group at Ober/Kaler and is a former president of the Maryland State Bar Association and the Women's Bar Association of Maryland. She graduated from Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia.

Russell, 41, is an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore. He is the son of former Baltimore city solicitor and mayoral candidate George L. Russell Jr., the first African-American to sit on the city Circuit Court. The younger Russell is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law.

Ehrlich was employed as an attorney with Ober/Kaler - also known as Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver - between 1982 and his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994. White, who has been with the firm since 1976, said she worked with Ehrlich in the litigation department when he was with the firm.

Over the course of his political career, White has been a steady supporter. She gave $7,100 to Ehrlich's gubernatorial campaigns in 2002 and 2006 and said she has been supporting his political ventures since he first ran for the General Assembly in 1986.

"From the moment Robert Ehrlich announced that he was a candidate a long time ago for the House of Delegates, I was as supportive as I could be," she said.

White has also donated to Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat; and former Sen. Sharon Grosfeld of Montgomery County, who was one the most liberal members of the General Assembly.

"I am a rather independent cuss," White said yesterday.

White said she supported Grosfeld's efforts on the issue of domestic violence. The Baltimore lawyer said she has long been active on the issues of domestic violence and gender bias in the court system.

For a principal at a major Baltimore firm such as Ober/Kaler, a circuit judge's salary of $128,352 likely represents a pay cut.

Without disclosing her current compensation, White indicated that the salary issue is one she considered before deciding to apply for what she called "the ultimate form of public service."

"It does represent a big change for me, but I am at a point where I am fiscally stable, [and] my debts are under control," she said.

Russell has worked in the Maryland U.S. attorney's office twice - the first time in the office's civil division from 1994 until 1999. He returned in 2002 to join its criminal division.

"He has been a tremendous supporter of the [Project] Exile program," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said, referring to his office's gun prosecution program for convicted felons. "He is also known for handling his docket quickly."

Russell's most prominent victory in the courtroom came in 2005, when he handled the prosecution of a former Towson diet doctor, who was sentenced to serve seven years in prison for conspiring to cook up the drug Ecstasy in his Fells Point home.

The list Ehrlich rejected included two members of Baltimore's District Court, Judges Emanuel Brown and Christopher Louis Panos. Brown is a 1998 Glendening appointee, while Panos was named to the District Court by Ehrlich a little more than six months ago. Also on the rejected list were lawyers Anissa J. Bonner, Donald E. Zaremba, Elizabeth A. Ritter and Yolanda A. Tanner.

Ehrlich also named A. Michael Chapdelaine to succeed retiring Judge Steven I. Platt to the Prince George's County Circuit Court yesterday.

Sun reporter Matthew Dolan contributed to this article.

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