Practice, practice, practice

March 28, 2007

For one sentence in the Maryland Constitution, the 39 words explaining the qualifications for attorney general are a tricky business. Thanks to the Court of Appeals, it's unlikely we've heard the last on the subject, too. In a 72-page opinion filed Monday (counting the extra 32 pages of concurring opinion, that's an average 2 2/3 pages per constitutional word), the court made a bad situation worse.

Voters may recall that the brouhaha began when a question arose whether then-Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez met the constitutional requirements to be Maryland attorney general. The constitution calls for the officeholder to have "practiced law in this state for at least 10 years." Mr. Perez had lived in Maryland for 10 years and practiced law for 10 years but much of it was as a federal prosecutor in Washington. He was admitted to the state bar in 2001.

The state's top court ruled against Mr. Perez's candidacy last fall. Now we know their reasoning: An attorney general must be a member of the Maryland bar for 10 years, and he or she must be a practitioner of law in Maryland for an identical period. That second requirement now leaves in question what exactly is a practice of law in Maryland.

Apparently, working for the Justice Department in D.C. doesn't qualify. But what if Mr. Perez had a local real estate settlement business on the side? What if he worked for a Baltimore firm but never went to court or even filed a brief?

The opinion also casts some doubt about whether Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler met the practice standard. He was not an attorney of record in any Maryland cases before 1998. A legal challenge was filed against Mr. Gansler's candidacy in October but was judged to have been submitted too late by the Court of Appeals, which never ruled on the substance of the allegation.

It's notable that a court that has been so generous in its constitutional interpretations on candidates in the past (the late Sen. Clarence W. Blount of Baltimore was judged to meet the district residency requirement in 1998 even though he didn't actually sleep there) would now choose to be so picayune. Such a mess requires an appropriate remedy from the legislature: a common-sense constitutional amendment setting reasonable standards for the office. Ten years of paying dues to the bar shouldn't be a chief prerequisite, particularly when it means voters are denied the opportunity to elect experienced and well-regarded lawyers such as Mr. Perez.

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