Judge Rules Smigiel Off the Hook to Pay Taxpayers’ $40K Legal Bill for his Lawsuit Against Cecil County
You know it‚Äôs going to be an interesting, or circuitous, argument when a legal or political document begins with an 1835 quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville, that astute observer of early America. A Circuit Court judge recently struck both legal and political notes in ruling that Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) should not be required to pay nearly $40,000 in county legal fees for his losing lawsuit challenging Tari Moore‚Äôs change in political party registration.
‚ÄúThere is hardly a political question in the United States which doesn‚Äôt sooner or later turn into a judicial one,‚ÄĚ visiting Judge Thomas E. Marshall wrote, beginning his opinion with the quotation from de Tocqueville.
And the judge cited lots of local politics before concluding that Smigiel‚Äôs handling of his lawsuit didn‚Äôt rise to the level of ‚Äúbad faith‚ÄĚ that would meet stringent state legal standards for ‚Äúsanctions‚ÄĚ that would have required him to compensate the county government for legal fees it had to pay to defend itself against Smigiel‚Äôs lawsuit.
‚ÄúThe original complaint contained allegations of political chicanery,‚ÄĚ the judge observed. And Smigiel‚Äôs named client in the case, Chris Zeauskas, chair of the county‚Äôs Republican Central Committee, was ‚Äúnot amused by Mrs. Moore‚Äôs political maneuver.‚ÄĚ (The GOP committee is dominated by members of a political slate assembled by the old ‚ÄėSmipkin‚Äô political machine created by Smigiel and former Sen. E.J. Pipkin.)
Shortly before being sworn in as Cecil County‚Äôs first County Executive under Charter government in December, 2012, Moore switched her political party registration from Republican to ‚Äúunafilliated,‚ÄĚ with the result that the County Council was empowered under the Charter to pick anyone it wanted as her successor for the District 2 Council seat she vacated to assume her new position. Had she remained a Republican, the GOP Central Committee would have had the power to pick a list of three names to which the Council would be limited in making a choice.
As it turned out, the Council deadlocked even on how to proceed to consider a replacement, so under the Charter, Moore got to pick her own replacement: Republican Joyce Bowlsbey. (Most likely, even if Moore had remained a Republican, the bitter 2-2- deadlock on the Council at the time probably would have persisted even if the GOP committee had been able to submit its list of names.)
The judge previously dismissed Smigiel‚Äôs lawsuit, saying there was ‚Äúno support whatsoever‚ÄĚ in the law for his contentions and attempt to prevent Bowlsbey from taking her Council seat. The judge also held that Zeauskas had no ‚Äústanding‚ÄĚ to sue since he could not prove any personal harm and noted that Smigiel hadn‚Äôt bothered to respond to the county‚Äôs legal briefs in the case despite being given an extended period of time to do so.
[SEE Cecil Times report on judge‚Äôs previous dismissal of Smigiel‚Äôs lawsuit here:
Then County Attorney Jason Allison filed a motion in the case asking the court to impose sanctions on Smigiel and require him to pay the county‚Äôs legal costs because he should have known his case was ‚Äúpatently groundless‚ÄĚ and his failure to respond to legal motions in the case amounted to ‚Äúbad faith.‚ÄĚ
But in a ruling filed two weeks ago, the judge held that Smigiel‚Äôs actions did not breach a strict ‚Äútwo step‚ÄĚ process required to impose sanctions. First, the case was not inherently ‚Äúwithout substantial justification in law or in fact merely because it did not survive a motion to dismiss,‚ÄĚ the judge wrote. And Smigiel‚Äôs failure to pursue his case ‚Äúin and by itself does not mandate a finding of bad faith.‚ÄĚ
The award of legal fees to the prevailing party‚ÄĒthe county‚ÄĒ‚Äúis an extraordinary remedy which should only be exercised in the rare and exceptional case,‚ÄĚ the judge said, adding that there was no factual proof that his actions amounted to bad faith.
Since there was no ‚Äúevidentiary hearing‚ÄĚ in the case‚ÄĒSmigiel had demanded a postponement of a hearing under a state law allowing delays for members of the General Assembly while the legislative body is in session‚ÄĒthe judge said the allegations on both sides in their legal filings were ‚Äúmere unsupported, bald allegations.‚ÄĚ
Despite the baldness of the allegations, the judge added that it could be an ‚Äúinescapable conclusion that Mrs. Moore circumvented the intent of the provisions of the newly enacted Cecil County charter which provided for Central Committee participation in filling County Council vacancies.‚ÄĚ
And it was also ‚Äúobvious‚ÄĚ that Smigiel‚Äôs suit was filed to ‚Äúthwart the perceived deception by Mrs. Moore and had a legitimate basis at least in fact.‚ÄĚ But his lethargy in following up the case did not amount to ‚Äúegregious behavior‚ÄĚ that would warrant a ‚Äúbad faith‚ÄĚ finding and financial sanctions, the judge added.
Commenting on the latest ruling in the case, Allison told Cecil Times that the original suit was dismissed for ‚Äúfailure to state a claim‚ÄĚ that met legal requirements. The lawyer and his client ‚Äúshould have presented facts to support‚ÄĚ their claim but never did so, he added.
Shortly after the judge dismissed Smigiel’s original lawsuit, Moore re-affiliated with the Republican party on county election rolls.
Now that Smigiel is off the hook to pay the county‚Äôs legal expenses, which included hiring an outside lawyer from Baltimore County specializing in cases against local governments, perhaps he‚Äôll have some spare cash to pay his mounting fines for failure to comply with state election laws requiring him to file campaign finance reports in a timely manner.
So far, he has failed to file the required annual report that was due on 1/15/14, and the state Board of Elections has already assessed him with fines of $140, which could rise to a maximum of $250 if he continues to decline to file his report.
In addition, Smigiel still has an unpaid balance of another $230 in fines for his belated filing of a required finance report after his losing bid for a Circuit Court judgeship in the 2012 elections.