Smigiel Launches Cecil County Judge Campaign with Legal Flub: Cribbing Official State Court Seal
A Cecil Times Special Report
Delegate Michael Smigiel (R-36) has launched his long-anticipated campaign for a Cecil County Circuit Court judgeship with a major legal flub: a fundraising appeal that misappropriated the official seal of a state judicial agency.
Documents obtained by The Cecil Times show that Smigiel pitched his candidacy—which had not yet been listed as officially filed in the state Board of Elections database as of Monday—with a plea for campaign donations under the official seal of the state Administrative Office of the Courts. After some recipients of his letter questioned the propriety of its content, Smigiel had to issue an apology both to the recipients and the state court office.
The misappropriation of the state courts’ official seal by Smigiel is ironic, since he railed loudly and at length against the citizens’ group, “Friends of Charter,” which had used the Cecil County seal—which was not copyrighted at the time—on literature supporting adoption of a charter form of government on the 2010 ballot. Smigiel and his political compadre, Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36), strongly opposed a shift to charter government in the county but voters rejected their position and approved charter by an overwhelming margin.
Smigiel’s botched launch to his latest political campaign began with a letter dated 8/31/11, in which he made a fundraising appeal to fellow lawyers around the state. He wrote that, as a member of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, “I have consistently worked to protect the rights of those who have been injured through no fault of their own.”
But now, he wrote, “I feel an obligation to pursue a Judgeship” and claimed he was “uniquely qualified to serve on the bench.”
“I have an opportunity to run for one of two open positions on the Circuit Court and request any help you can provide me in supporting my campaign,” he wrote. He then asked for online campaign donations via his website or mailed contributions to his Elkton law office.
But the use of the court seal raised eyebrows in the legal community, since it could imply that Smigiel was endorsed by the Administrative Office of the Courts–which supervises the court system and oversees the process for selecting appointees to vacant court seats– or suggest that he had received an official nomination for the current lone vacant seat on the local Circuit Court.
(In fact, Smigiel did not apply to the judicial nominating panel that reviewed applicants’ credentials and has forwarded a list of five names to the Governor for his decision on an appointment to the vacant court seat, which is expected to be made soon. Since he did not participate in that process, Smigiel is ineligible for appointment to the open seat, although he is free to file as a candidate for a judgeship in the 2012 election.)
In a subsequent apology letter dated 9/7/11, Smigiel blamed a campaign volunteer for the problem. He said he had “reviewed the content” of the initial letter and was “hurrying out the door” to get to a meeting when he advised a “young lady who was volunteering to help with the campaign” to “add the authority” line to the letter. He said it was “my mistake” in assuming she knew what that meant. Under state election law, authority lines are required in campaign communications, and generally read, “By authority of (candidate’s campaign committee name), John Doe (or whomever), Treasurer.”
Smigiel wrote in his apology letter that the volunteer “found a seal of the Administrative Office of the Courts on the computer” and added it to the top of his campaign letter.
He said he was “shocked and horrified” to learn of the matter when an attorney called him to inquire about it. “All I can say is Mea Culpa,” Smigiel wrote.
“My apologizes [SIC] for any false impression which was given by the inadvertent addition of that seal,” Smigiel added. “Obviously, the Administrative Office of the Courts did NOT condone its use, nor did I.”
According to other documents obtained by Cecil Times, the legal counsel of the Administrative Office of the Courts is reviewing the entire matter, and the apology letter, and asked Smigiel to provide the office with the names of all those who would receive the apology letter. The matter was expected to be referred to the state Board of Elections for review.
The seal affair raises anew questions about Smigiel’s attention to legal details. During his tenure in the House of Delegates, he has repeatedly failed to comply with campaign finance laws’ mandated filing of campaign finance reports. He has been fined repeatedly by the state Board of Elections for missed deadlines in filing reports, in some cases well over a year late.
Smigiel’s intention to run for a judgeship was publicly announced on Friday by Adam Straight, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 2, at the FOP’s crab feast, according to multiple sources who were present at the event. Straight and the FOP were major donors to a slate of candidates backed by the Smipkin political organization in last year’s elections.
In the 2012 election, there will be two Cecil County Circuit Court seats on a non-partisan ballot. Judicial candidates run in both the Democratic and Republican primaries and the top vote-getters in each primary go on to the general election ballot. With two seats at stake, there could be four or more candidates appearing on the November, 2012 ballot.
Cecil County Circuit Court Judge Keith Baynes, who received an appointment to a vacant seat on the court last December, has already announced he will be running in the election for his seat. Baynes, a Republican, has the distinction of being one of the few Republicans to receive a judicial appointment from the Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley. O’Malley aides told Cecil Times that the appointment was made without regard to political party and that the governor felt Baynes was highly qualified for the seat. [See previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/01/keith-baynes-r-named-to-circuit-court-2012-election-contest-expected/ ]
There is currently one more vacant seat on the local Circuit Court and five names have been sent to the governor, who told the nominees recently that he expected to fill the vacancy in September. Whoever is appointed to that seat will have to defend it in the 2012 election.
Under state law, Circuit Court judges have to stand for election in the first election after their appointment and if they win, they enjoy a 15-year term before their next stand for election.