Law matters: Ira Cooke and Paul Schurick

Maryland court makes a questionable decision on disbarment of former lobbyist

debate over voter fraud law is disingenuous

December 12, 2011|Dan Rodricks

More than six years ago, Maryland's highest court voted to disbar Ira C. Cooke, once one of Annapolis' most prominent lobbyists, because of Mr. Cooke's conviction in an embezzlement case in California.

A couple of years later, that conviction was reversed by the high court of California, and prosecutors in Bakersfield decided against a retrial. So, back in Annapolis, Mr. Cooke asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to reinstate him to the bar here.

According to records, Mr. Cooke made that predictable request in the court's fall term of 2007 — by the calendar I've been using, four years ago — but the Court of Appeals only ruled on the matter late last month.

After all that mulling — or foot-dragging — the court refused to allow Mr. Cooke to return to the practice of law in Maryland. Why?

There's no explanation in the court's Nov. 28 decision, only that the vote on reinstatement was 3-3, and a tie in such matters affirms the earlier decision.

The Court of Appeals is one judge short right now. There are supposed to be seven members, but the retirement in August of the widely respected Joseph F. Murphy Jr. created a vacancy. Because Mr. Murphy returned to private practice, he was ineligible for recall to the court. So, when the remaining six judges ruled on the Cooke matter last month, there was no one to break the tie.

The timing of the Cooke ruling, after such a long delay, is worth noting, coming just three months after Mr. Murphy's departure and before the appointment and approval of a new member of the court. "Murphy, J., now retired, participated in the hearing and conference of this case while an active member of this Court," the ruling states. "He did not participate in the decision and adoption of this order."

One wonders what the vote might have been had it been taken while Mr. Murphy was still Judge Murphy.

One also wonders about the fairness of this ruling. Mr. Cooke has not had the cleanest of careers. But if the man was disbarred specifically because of a conviction, and if that conviction has since been reversed, shouldn't he be allowed to resume his livelihood?

Last note on this: Back when Mr. Cooke's attorney, M. Albert Figinski, argued for his client's reinstatement, he was joined in the effort by Glenn M. Grossman, bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission. Even the state's chief investigator of lawyer misconduct thought Mr. Cooke should return to the bar.

Something smells here.

•••

Regarding last week's conviction of Paul Schurick in the Election Day robocall case and claims that these sort of voter suppression efforts are merely political tactics that constitute protected speech: I suggest some fireside reading of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the history leading to its passage; it is bound to deepen appreciation of laws that prohibit efforts to suppress voting in any way.

The people who defend the 2010 "relax" robocall that targeted black voters seem to argue this matter as they do gun control or immigration policy or just about anything — on partisan grounds, Republican versus Democrat, conservatives versus liberals, libertarianism versus political correctness. Conservatives are eager to point out that Democrats are just as guilty of voter suppression as Republicans are, with little to support that claim. That we would bicker over whether efforts to get black voters to stay at home on Election Day should be outlawed shows how divided we are —- or how contrived and disingenuous this "debate" is.

As for the Maryland law Mr. Schurick violated, Sandy Rosenberg, its sponsor in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2005, writes: "Sen. Lisa Gladden and I introduced the law making it illegal to use fraud to 'willfully and knowingly' influence or attempt to influence a voter's decision to go to the polls to cast a vote. What prompted our legislation was the flyer distributed in African-American and Hispanic communities urging people to vote on the Thursday after Election Day and erroneously implying that they could not vote if they owed rent or child support. Such tactics are part of a national pattern and practice of trying to suppress the vote among minorities. To our knowledge, Maryland was the first, and still only, state to take action against such dirty tricks. As to the First Amendment concern raised by defense counsel, fraudulent speech is not protected political speech."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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