Removing Maryland Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone from office two months before the presidential election could "create chaos" and destroy public confidence in the Nov. 2 vote, a circuit judge said yesterday in temporarily blocking the State Board of Elections' attempt to suspend her.
Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth sided with Lamone on nearly every issue she raised in a hearing last week - and even on some she didn't. He said the board's action appeared to violate the intent of the General Assembly when it passed a law six years ago designed to insulate the elections office from politics.
"The public has a strong interest in the integrity of the elections process. Removing the administrator two months before an election has the potential to create chaos," he said.
Lamone said she was pleased with the temporary injunction and "looking forward to getting back to work and ensuring a successful election."
But Silkworth's ruling leaves Lamone's ultimate fate in doubt and doesn't guarantee that she would stay in office through Election Day.
The elections board voted two weeks ago to send charges against Lamone to an administrative law judge for a fact-finding hearing, after which the panel would decide whether to permanently remove the administrator from her post.
The hearing is scheduled to begin Oct. 13. Silkworth questioned whether state law allows such a hearing or the board vote calling for it. Lamone's attorneys said they are investigating a challenge.
The elections board's chairman, Gilles W. Burger, said yesterday in a statement that Silkworth's action is regrettable because leaving Lamone in office while that hearing is still pending could hinder election preparations.
"Today's court decision makes it difficult to separate Ms. Lamone's personnel matters from the staff's preparation for the November 2 general election," he stated. "The board maintains its belief that the public interest is served best by allowing Ms. Lamone to prepare arguments for her hearing away from the office, without disruption in salary or distraction of staff."
Lamone has been at the center of controversy since a report last year criticizing the security of the state's new electronic voting machines became public. She has defended the system, resisting calls from critics to create a system of paper receipts for voters.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has also backed the machines, but he has previously indicated that he would like to replace Lamone, a Democrat who was appointed by his predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The administrator oversees local election boards and plays a key role in determining how elections are run and how votes are counted.
Ehrlich's appointments secretary, Lawrence J. Hogan, denied last week that the governor or a member of his staff has attempted to influence the board in its decision.
But the effort to remove Lamone intensified this summer after Ehrlich appointees attained the four-fifths majority they need on the board to vote Lamone out. In a closed-door meeting two weeks ago, they set forth charges against her, a move that has angered Democrats, who called the move to oust her a "witch hunt."
"It is unbelievable that the board would attempt to put our election system at risk by taking this unjustified action, and I still await very substantive reasons for their charges," U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said in a statement praising yesterday's ruling.
Silkworth said the board's failure to provide him with the charges against Lamone made it difficult for him to uphold her suspension. The board argued that the charges are a confidential personnel matter.
Not knowing the board's allegations, Silkworth said, he could not determine that there would be greater harm in keeping Lamone on the job while the charges are being investigated than she would suffer by being suspended.
"They really needed a smoking cannon in order to win something like this, and I'd be very surprised if they could come up with it," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "If they have something else, why didn't they put it up in front of the judge?"
Silkworth brought up points on Lamone's behalf that she did not raise, such as the chance she would lose her position as president-elect of the National Association of State Election Administrators if her suspension were left to stand.
Silkworth also went beyond the immediate question of Lamone's suspension and questioned whether the October administrative law hearings were proper, saying he thinks it is probable that one board member, recent Ehrlich appointee Gene M. Raynor, was ineligible to vote on the matter because he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate and his predecessor has not resigned.
Raynor's predecessor, Bobbie S. Mack of Prince George's County, filed suit against Ehrlich in July, arguing that she should remain a board member until the Senate votes on Raynor's appointment.
Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he hopes the administrative law judge will use his discretion and delay the hearing until after the election.
"It's in everybody's best interest that Linda and the board concentrate on the Nov. 2 election," Jimeno said. "It was not the right battle to take on, and the timing was wrong, and I think justice prevailed."