Cecil County Courts: Smigiel, Rollins, Others Apply for Vacant Court Seats; Lock Up Court Seal?

May 19, 2016

Lock up the official seal of the state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC): Mike Smigiel, three-time loser in recent political campaigns including a bid for a Circuit Court judgeship in which he misappropriated the AOC seal, is at it again. The former state Delegate has filed applications for a gubernatorial appointment to both Circuit Court and District Court vacant seats on the Cecil County bench.

Also filing an application for appointment to the Circuit Court bench is current Cecil County State’s Attorney Ellis (E.D.E) Rollins, a Republican whose father and grandfather were also judges. It has long been known in local legal and political circles that Rollins wanted to follow in the family footsteps to a court seat, and that he was especially interested in seeking the seat that recently became available due to the retirement of Judge V. Michael Whelan. (Whelan officially retired last fall, but has continued to fill-in on the local bench as a “senior” or retired judge with a limited caseload.) Rollins was previously passed over for a governor’s appointment to two seats on the Circuit Court. Rollins drew controversy in his past county State’s Attorney political campaign for unilaterally appointing his son to a job in his office for which the son had significantly lower qualifications than the previous holder of the job.

Circuit Court judges are appointed by the Governor, after an independent regional commission reviews candidates and makes recommendations to the Governor. Once appointed to the seat, the new judges must stand for election by the voters in the next state election. If elected in a non-partisan election, they serve a 15-year term before having to stand for election again. District Court judges are appointed by the governor and ratified by the state Senate for 10-year terms. They do not have to stand for election by the voters.

Cecil County also has a vacant District Court judgeship, due to the recent retirement of Judge Stephen J. Baker, the son of the late local political legend state Sen. Walter Baker. Stephen Baker has continued to hear cases while on ‘retired’ status. Five candidates have applied for appointment to his seat on the local District Court bench.

Meanwhile, a regional judicial nominating panel—consisting of 13 members including lawyers as well as local citizens from the Upper Shore area including Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s County—is slated to meet 6/2/16 to review applications for the Circuit and District Courts vacancies and vote on recommendations to the governor. State guidelines note that the nominating panel is required to submit a slate of three “qualified” candidates to the governor, and the Circuit Court applicant field includes a total of four contenders while the District Court applicants number five.

The regional panel includes several Cecil County lawyers and citizens who are known to be skeptical about Smigiel, although the composition of the panel includes people from other counties in which Smigiel represented the area as a state Delegate in District 36. Smigiel was defeated for re-election in the 2014 election for Delegate and he just recently overwhelmingly lost a bid for the GOP nomination for US Congress in the 1st District against incumbent Andy Harris.

Previously, Smigiel came under fire from state judicial authorities when he sent out a campaign fundraising letter, seeking support for his ill-fated 2012 election campaign for a Circuit Court seat, that included a heading that showed the official seal of the non-partisan AOC, which oversees administration of state courts and also supervises the judicial nominating process. The AOC protested the misappropriation of the official seal, which could have suggested the impartial AOC was endorsing his political campaign for a judgeship. Smigiel blamed a “volunteer” in his campaign operation and, under pressure from the AOC, eventually apologized for the misuse of the official seal.

[SEE past CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/09/smigiel-launches-cecil-county-judge-campaign-with-major-legal-flub-cribbing-official-seal-of-state-courts/ ]

The misappropriation was particularly troublesome since Smigiel had not gone through the detailed “vetting” process required for an initial gubernatorial appointment to a court seat. Instead, Smigiel chose to directly pose an election challenge to the previously appointed judges—Keith Baynes and Jane Cairns Murray who had gone through the rigorous review process to obtain appointments to the court.

In addition, Smigiel sought to benefit from a shadowy Political Action Committee (PAC) created by his longtime political pal, Robert Gorman (currently a candidate for Elkton town commissioner) that attacked Baynes with last-minute false claims that were disputed by the mother of a child sex abuse victim, who praised Baynes for his tough prosecution of a child molester that resulted in a long-term prison sentence. In fact, Smigiel represented the molester in court actions seeking to have his sentence reduced.

Meanwhile, Rollins, the other most prominent name submitted in the application process, brings to the review process a long career as a private lawyer in Elkton and a well-known family name. But Rollins also brings family baggage to the nominating process—including the fact that two of his sons are prominent defense attorneys in the county and he would have to recuse himself as a judge from presiding over any cases in which his sons are defendants’ legal counsel. Given the increasingly heavy caseload in Cecil County courts—which got the attention of the state to add a fourth Circuit Court judgeship locally due to the crushing increase in criminal cases here—why would the governor appoint a judge who would be required by ethics rules to recuse himself from many cases?

Rollins’ also drew political questions in his last campaign for State’s Attorney—and questions that could be troubling for the nominations review panel—over his unilateral decision to hire one of his sons for a highly-paid District Court investigator job despite the fact that the son had minimal qualifications for a job previously held by a retired police investigator and the son was a licensee/owner of a bar that had several county liquor board violations and fines.

[SEE past CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2014/06/cecil-county-states-attorney-hired-son-for-job-same-day-dad-sworn-in-primary-campaign-challenger-questions-nepotism/

Meanwhile, other applicants for the newly vacant Cecil County Circuit Court seat are:

–Edwin B. Fockler IV, an assistant public defender in Cecil County. He also applied for the 2013 Circuit Court judicial seat when the court was expanded. (Brenda Sexton, who previously served as the court’s domestic relations master, was ultimately appointed by the governor to the new court judgeship.)

–Will Davis, Jr., an Elkton lawyer and a board member at Cecil College. If selected by the governor, Davis apparently would be the first African-American to sit on the local judicial bench.

The District Court seat drew applications from Davis, Smigiel, Fockler, Clara E. Campbell, and Stephanie Diebold Hamilton.

Campbell is a well-known local attorney based in Elkton. She also applied for a court vacancy in 2013, when the state added a new fourth seat to the Circuit Court bench. She has handled planning and zoning issues for the county government, on a consulting basis, as well as conducting a private law practice.

Hamilton,of North East, has handled a variety of civil and criminal cases for clients in county courts, according to the court case database.

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