Local legislators' votes can be used as evidence against them in criminal cases, state prosecutors argued Thursday before Maryland's highest court in an effort to revive corruption charges against a Baltimore councilwoman.
But lawyers for Councilwoman Helen L. Holton said the court cannot force her to defend her votes, following accusations that she accepted cash from city developers in return for approving public subsidies for their Harbor East project.
Holton, who represents Southwest Baltimore, helped orchestrate the subsidies in 2007 and voted for them while head of the taxation and finance committee. Prosecutors pointed to those actions in a 2009 indictment as evidence of a bribe.
Holton's lawyers argued that the legal principle of "official immunity" guarantees that local legislators do not have to answer to the courts for their legislative acts.
The trial judge, Dennis M. Sweeney, agreed and dismissed the most serious charges against Holton, including bribery and perjury. When prosecutors appealed, the Court of Special Appeals upheld his ruling. Holton later pleaded no contest to related misdemeanor charges.
State prosecutors appealed the dismissals again, and the sides made oral arguments Thursday before the Maryland Court of Appeals.
"Part of the rationale of the independence for legislators is based on this notion that they shouldn't be called to defend themselves for their legislative acts," said Holton's attorney, Joshua R. Treem.
In the Holton case, that would mean that her votes favoring a campaign contributor's project could not be used by prosecutors to convince a jury of corruption.
"If a prosecutor can claim that a vote timed closely to a campaign contribution constitutes a crime, then every local legislator can be a target for prosecution," Holton's lawyers wrote in a brief.
State prosecutors contended that local legislators do not have the right to official immunity in criminal prosecutions, though they do in civil cases, according to case law. If the court were to rule otherwise, they argued, the state would be hobbled in pursuing crooked city and county lawmakers.
The state would "become dependent upon the federal government to clean up corruption on the local level in Maryland," Thomas M. McDonough, the deputy state prosecutor, wrote in a legal brief.
The U.S. and Maryland constitutions, in what are known as "speech or debate" clauses, guarantee that the legislative acts of congressional and state representatives cannot be used against them by the executive branch. No similar constitutional or statutory provision exists for local representatives.
Outside the courtroom after the arguments, Holton declined to comment.
According to a statement of facts presented in court in October, she asked two developers to pay $12,500 to finance a political poll, skirting campaign-finance law and exceeding the limit on political donations.
After pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges, she received probation before judgment and was ordered to pay a $2,500 fine. Bernard C. "Jack" Young, the City Council president, stripped her of her post as head of the tax and finance committee.
The Court of Appeals has no deadline for deciding the case.