Rivals for State’s Attorney, Register of Wills Face Sharp Questions; Judge Race Calmer at GOP Forum

May 10, 2018

There were some tough questions when rival candidates in the June Republican primary for Cecil County State’s Attorney and the Register of Wills office squared off in a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Republican Club of Cecil County last week, putting some candidates on the defensive hot seat.

In contrast, a panel of three candidates vying for a seat on the county’s Circuit Court was uncharacteristically mellow, given one candidate’s past record of attack-dog campaigns.

Members of the audience at the event, held at the VFW hall in Chesapeake City, submitted written questions to the moderator, James Dubuque, vice president of the club, who then picked questions to pose to the candidates.


In the race for the open State’s Attorney seat, all three candidates currently work in the prosecutor’s office: Amanda Bessicks, a four-year veteran of the office who currently specializes in prosecuting cases involving crimes against children and domestic violence; Karl Fockler, deputy State’s Attorney since last year and a more than ten-year veteran of the office; and Kevin Urick, a prosecutor with over 12 years’ experience in Cecil County and previously a Baltimore City prosecutor for over 15 years.

In opening statements, Bessicks said she would bring greater “victim advocacy” to the office, as well as increased “accountability” to the public and would demand no bail for violent offenders awaiting trial. Fockler said the office “needs to do better” and had “been in limbo” while awaiting the outcome of the legal case against former State’s Attorney Edward D.E. “Ellis” Rollins, who resigned last year following his conviction on two counts stemming from an indecent exposure case in Ocean City. Urick said he would “hit the ground running” due to his experience and he advocated creation of an “elder abuse” task force.

In questions to the candidates, Urick was asked about his comments claiming that a female lawyer who criticized his handling of domestic violence victims was relying on “emotions” instead of facts, while Fockler was asked about potential conflicts of interest between his own candidacy, if successful, and that of his brother, Edwin B. Fockler IV, who is running for a Circuit Court seat.

{Some of the questions at the forum reflected issues raised in a previous CECIL TIMES report on campaign finances in the SA contest: see that report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2018/05/states-attorney-candidates-raise-campaign-a-backer-bashes-a-rival/]

Urick disputed criticism by Wendy Culberson, who is supporting Bessicks in the SA race, accusing him of being insensitive to domestic violence victims. He said that he had prosecuted child abuse cases for over ten years and was supported in his campaign by victims of domestic violence.
Karl Fockler was asked about potential conflict of interest problems if, as the State’s Attorney, his office brought cases before the Circuit Court bench if his brother were elected as a judge. “Certainly I support my brother, he’d make a fine judge,” Karl Fockler said with a smile. But he went on to say that he didn’t see a problem because there was a state Attorney General’s office letter saying it was permissible for Ellis Rollins to bring cases to court although two of his sons practiced criminal defense law in the county.

“I haven’t seen that letter myself,” Karl Fockler said, but he added, “I’d say that’s akin to the situation if both of us were elected.”

Edwin Fockler jumped up from the audience, taking the microphone from his brother, to say that as a judge he would be “required to be above reproach” and would adhere to the highest ethical standards.

Karl Fockler said that, while his brother Edwin has served as a public defender in Cecil County, “we have a wall that’s set up between us” and the brothers had not handled cases against one another. “It has not been an issue.”

[Cecil Times will be posting a separate report on a case where it was an issue.]

Bessicks called for some major changes in the SA office, saying she would end the current policy of employing mostly part-time prosecutors who are free to conduct civil law practices on the side. “Part-time doesn’t cut it,” she said. Shifting part-timers to full time work requirements would increase “accountability” without having to ask the county to pay for hiring “additional bodies” that would boost costs to taxpayers.

Urick said the office was short-handed, and “We need bodies. I don’t care of they are full-time or part-time.”

Fockler said that full-time prosecutors “is certainly the way to go” for new hires, but he said he did not want to be “handcuffed” to full-timers alone because some current part-timers who were highly skilled as prosecutors would be reluctant to do the job if they could not also have a private practice.

Some critics of the current system claim that part-timers may agree to plea bargains to clear their caseloads quickly and free up their schedules to do outside civil work.

Bessicks said that about 90 percent of Circuit Court cases brought by the SA office are now resolved with plea deals. “We’re pleading good cases and that is not acceptable to me,” she said.


This year’s election is a re-match of the contest four years ago between longtime, four-term Register of Wills, Allyn “Lyn” Price Nickle, and the current Register, Michael W. Dawson, who narrowly won the post four years ago.

This year’s fight comes on different political turf: Nickle ran as a Democrat last time but has switched her party affiliation to GOP. Dawson ran for a state Delegate seat several years ago on the Constitution Party ticket but changed his party affiliation to Republican when he ran for Register of Wills four years ago. There is no Democrat competing for the post this year, so the winner will be determined in the Republican primary.

In questions from the audience and back-and-forth commentary from the candidates, it was clear that some of the same turf on which the battle was fought before is still fertile political ground. Only this time the tables are turned.

Four years ago, Dawson argued that the Register office spent too much money on its operations and should trim expenses to match the amount of “revenues” the office brings in from various fees and inheritance taxes. But that position overlooked the fact that Cecil County residents are generally low to moderate income and their estates are too small to be assessed inheritance taxes.

During the GOP forum, Nickle hit back further, saying that revenues had gone down on her watch because the General Assembly had rolled back inheritance taxes on farmland transfers by 1 percent, saving farm families money and easing the passage of family farms to the next generation. “That’s $4 million in your pocket…taxes you didn’t have to pay.,” she said.

Nickle said that office operating expenses had gone up on Dawson’s watch, but Dawson replied that higher health insurance costs and salary increases for state employees, including the Registrar himself, were the reason.

Dawson said he had boosted other revenues by encouraging people to file their wills, in advance, for safekeeping in the vault of his office, for a $5 fee, yielding over $5,000 in revenues. He said he was “very proud” of having found the original seal of the Register’s office in the courthouse and arranged for it to be re-cast to preserve the historical artifact.

Nickle cited her leadership role on a statewide automation committee that had developed plans to digitize many vintage records and wills and in fact, she led Cecil County to be the first county in the state to scan and digitize those records.

In response to a question, Dawson acknowledged that the six-member staff he inherited from Nickle had all been trained by her in the proper performance of their duties. But he claimed that the employees were now “very happy with the way the office is being run” on his watch and “people are smiling.”


Judicial candidates run on a non-partisan basis, with their names appearing on the ballot in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. There is one seat at stake this year, and three candidates running for it. If one candidate wins both primaries, his name will appear unopposed on the November ballot; if two different candidates win one primary each, the two names would appear on the general election ballot for voters to decide the outcome in November.

Judge Will Davis currently sits on the bench, after being appointed to the seat by Gov. Larry Hogan in 2016. Under state law, an appointee must stand for election by the voters in the next election. Upon election to the bench, a Circuit Court judge then serves a 15-year term before having to face the voters again.

In keeping with the non-partisan nature of a judicial race, the candidates were not asked to answer questions from the audience. Each candidate described his resume and approach to the law.

Davis noted that he went through “an extreme vetting process” by a judicial nominating panel that reviewed his credentials and put him on a short list of qualified candidates from which the governor made his selection. Since his appointment to the bench, Davis, who has continued his off-the-bench community youth program involvement, said he has taken a “common sense” approach, being careful to “listen to everybody” involved in a case and keeping “an open mind” when listening to the arguments before the court.

“Shooting from the hip is not a good idea for a judge,” Davis said.

Cecil County’s original shoot-from-the hip politician, Michael D. Smigiel, Sr., a former state Delegate and three-time loser in his three most recent election bids, is also a candidate for the Circuit Court seat this year. He lost re-election to his Delegate seat, then lost a bid for the Circuit Court seat held by Keith Baynes, and most recently lost a GOP primary bid two years ago trying to unseat incumbent US Rep. Andy Harris (R-1). In the past, Smigiel was not deemed sufficiently qualified by the judicial nominating panel for an appointment to a court seat and he has also bypassed the vetting process in other court bids by just filing as a candidate in an election, as he did this year.

But this time Smigiel seemed unusually subdued at the candidate forum, walking with a cane to the candidates’ table and saying that all of the other candidates were “good men” who were “well qualified” for the bench. Smigiel offered a round-up of his Annapolis legislative experience, especially his stance as a champion of Second Amendment gun rights. He also declared that unlike the other candidates he was a “veteran” (he served as a US Marine) and “In Cecil County we don’t have a veteran on any of the benches.”

Smigiel also said he would “stand up to the establishment” if elected.

The third candidate in the race is the aforementioned Edwin B. Fockler IV, an experienced member of the local Public Defender’s office. He has twice applied for court vacancies and each time he was found to be highly qualified by judicial selection panels, but was not selected for an appointment by the governor.

Fockler has temporarily been re-assigned to cases in Kent County, so that he would not have to appear before Judge Davis whom he is opposing in the current election.

Fockler also offered a comment seemingly aimed at just one other non-incumbent candidate. He cited his own calm demeanor and said, “I’m not a grandstander; I don’t get up in court and shout.”


The day after the forum, leaders of the Republican Club of Cecil County (the original, longstanding GOP group in the county, not to be confused with a new name’s-almost-the-same rump group started by one person, announced that members had voted on a secret ballot to endorse the following candidates in the Republican primary, which will be held on June 26:

–Will Davis, for Circuit Court Judge
–Amanda Bessicks, for State’s Attorney
–Allyn “Lyn” Price Nickle, for Register of Wills.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Fine Maryland Wines
Proudly made in Cecil County