For hours Tuesday, Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols listened as lawyers representing an ousted state delegate, a former drug dealer and the governor of Maryland argued over the separation of powers in government and the meaning of the word "duty."
He will weigh those arguments as he decides who — from a legal perspective — is entitled to fill the state delegate seat at least temporarily vacated by Tiffany Alston.
As soon as Wednesday, Nichols will first decide whether Alston was appropriately ousted from her seat when she was convicted in October of misconduct in office, a conviction that technically vanished a month later when she paid a fine, completed community service and received what is known as a probation before judgment.
If he decides she was, Nichols will then sort out the legal morass that has become her successor's appointment.
That legal morass took center stage Tuesday. Alston sat with her attorney, whispering in his ear frequently during the proceedings; Gregory Hall, the man tentatively picked to replace her, sat amid reporters, leaning forward and nodding along with his attorney's arguments.
Lawyers first took up whether Alston's seat needs to be filled at all — which, seemingly, could render all other questions moot. Alston pleaded guilty in October to misconduct in office, which triggered her automatic removal under Maryland's constitution.
The next month, after she paid $800 restitution and completed 300 hours of community service, a judge gave her probation before judgment — a result that is technically not a conviction.
Her attorney now says the October "conviction" was not really a conviction at all — or, at least, not a final one — and Alston should never have lost her seat.
Matt Fader, an attorney for the governor's office and speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, argued that Alston had agreed as part of her plea to waive all appeal rights, effectively finalizing her conviction.
If Nichols agrees with Fader, he will then have to decide what happens to the vacant seat. On Nov. 2, the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee picked Hall by a 12-10 vote, a controversial selection because Hall has admitted to being a former crack dealer — and he was convicted of a misdemeanor gun charge for his role in an early 1990s gun battle that killed a 13-year-old boy.
The Hall pick was sent to Gov. Martin O'Malley for what some expected would be rubber-stamp approval. But the governor stalled and eventually asked the committee to withdraw its nomination. Hall, in turn, took legal action to force O'Malley's hand.
Walter Green, Hall's attorney, argued Tuesday that the governor was bound by Maryland law to approve Hall.
Attorneys for O'Malley and the Democratic Central Committee argued that while the state constitution might not explicitly address the committee's ability to withdraw Hall's name, that should not burden them with a legislator they do not want.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun