A judge in Anne Arundel County ruled Friday in the case of a county councilman who was ousted when he went to federal prison, but disagreement remained over whether the ruling allowed Daryl Jones to return to his seat.
Retired Judge Arthur Ahalt, who was brought in to hear the case, issued a one-page judgment echoing a Court of Appeals ruling that Jones was improperly removed from office in 2012 when he served jail time for not filing tax returns. Ahalt said the bill that removed Jones is null and void.
Jones' attorney, Linda Schuett, said Ahalt's ruling was a big win for her client. Effectively, the judge said that the bill removing Jones does not exist, "so Daryl Jones was never removed from office," she said.
Schuett could not say what Jones would do next, but said he is "feeling good."
But David Plymyer, the county attorney who defended the County Council's removal of Jones, said the ruling does not change the status quo: Jones is off the council and his replacement, Peter Smith, is on the council.
"What is important is what [the judge] didn't do," Plymyer said, noting that Ahalt did not order the council to take any specific action regarding Smith or Jones.
Plymyer said he needed to discuss the ramifications of Ahalt's ruling with the council, but expected the dispute would continue. He said, "This doesn't end the case."
Smith, a Severn Democrat who was selected by the council to replace Jones, has said he realized when he applied for the position that he might be forced by a court to abandon the District 1 seat. He's said he would abide by any court order, but did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The term for the District 1 seat ends in December 2014.
Jones, also a Democrat from Severn, was elected to the council in 2006 and re-elected in 2010 to represent northern Anne Arundel communities including Brooklyn Park, Linthicum, Glen Burnie, Severn and Hanover. In 2011, he pleaded guilty in federal court to failing to file several personal and business tax returns between 2002 and 2007. Jones, who ran a law practice and owned a tavern, served five months in a federal prison in South Carolina in 2012.
After Jones' conviction, the council voted 6-0 to declare the seat vacant on the grounds that he had abandoned his home in the district while in prison.
Jones took the case to court immediately. The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, ruled in July that Jones didn't give up his residency when he went to prison and therefore his removal was improper. The appeals court sent the case back to Anne Arundel Circuit Court to determine a remedy.
County Council Chairman Jerry Walker, a Gambrills Republican, said he had hoped for more clarity from the judge. "It will be interesting to see what happens, because Mr. Plymyer appears to disagree with Ms. Schuett and the court wasn't really clear," he said.
But Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat who is the only lawyer on the council, said the judge used the strongest language to strike down the bill, the Latin term "ab initio." Benoit, who sponsored the original bill that ousted Jones, added, "When you see those words, it is over."
Benoit said what happens at the County Council's next meeting, on Monday night, will largely be determined by the actions of Smith and Jones. "I'm wondering if Mr. Jones can show up and be the guy," he said.