A day after the Anne Arundel Judicial Nominating Commission voted to nominate Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's son to a District Court judgeship, a member of the panel called Miller to warn him of potential political fallout from the vote.
The commissioner - whom Miller declined to publicly name, out of concern that the attorney was violating the panel's confidentiality rules - told the Democratic leader that another commissioner was organizing a group resignation in protest of the nomination, he said.
In the days after the vote, two commissioners declared their intention to resign. Yesterday, a third panelist said she would step down, and all three attorneys sent a formal letter of resignation to Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. In the letter, they said that O'Malley's request that the commission reconsider previously rejected candidates - including Miller's son - "has shaken our confidence in the system" and "has adversely affected the respect of the bench and bar for the judicial appointment process."
Miller said yesterday that he believed media attention on the resignations would unfairly tarnish the reputation of his son, Thomas V. Miller III. The Senate president also discounted his son's chances generally, saying he presumed the governor will be guided by a desire to fill the three vacancies with applicants from underrepresented backgrounds.
"I'm sure they're going to look for a woman, an African-American and maybe one white male," said Miller, who is white. "So I doubt very seriously my son will be chosen as a judge. And that's fine. I have no qualms about that."
Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman traveling with the governor on a trade mission in Israel, declined to handicap the younger Miller's chances.
The nominating commission's chairman, Thomas J. Fleckenstein, said yesterday that he was unaware of the communication between a commissioner and the Senate president, but said he didn't believe it was a direct violation of secrecy vows taken by panelists about their deliberations or votes.
Fleckenstein said he lamented "the appearance" of political meddling and patronage resulting from the governor's request for a re-vote, but said he disagreed that the nominating process had been tainted.
"I respect their opinions, but I don't necessarily share them," Fleckenstein said of the resignations. "And obviously a majority of the commission doesn't share them."
The three resigning commissioners are attorneys Paula J. Peters, Eileen E. Powers and Marysabel Rodriguez-Nanney. Both Peters and Rodriguez-Nanney were appointed by O'Malley to the 13-member panel.
Of the three, only Peters - who acknowledged trying to coordinate her resignation with other commissioners sharing her concerns - has explicitly alleged that patronage or nepotism was involved in the panel's nomination of Miller's son. Peters said "political people" lobbied her to vote in favor of the 12-year Maryland Parole Commission veteran but has declined to name the people who contacted her.
Annapolis attorney Rodriguez-Nanney, the commissioner to most recently announce her resignation, said she had also been lobbied by "political-type people" on behalf of Miller, but not by elected officials. Like Peters, she declined to say who contacted her, but said the entire nominating process was suffused with extensive lobbying on behalf of and against nearly all of the applicants.
The more general criticism by commissioners is of an executive order issued in March by O'Malley that charged all statewide judicial nominating panels provide him with at least three nominations per vacancy.
"This is simply about making sure the governor has a sufficient applicant pool from which to make these appointments," Abbruzzese said. The previous executive order only instructed nominating commissions to "endeavor" to nominate three candidates per vacancy; the current order says they "shall" pick three.
The amended order ended up pressuring the Anne Arundel panel to recommend for judgeships people who are unqualified, Rodriguez-Nanney said.
Last year, 31 people applied for three District Court vacancies in Anne Arundel. In February, a majority of the panel could agree that only five of those applicants were qualified. After O'Malley's new executive order was published, his chief counsel, Elizabeth F. Harris, sent Fleckenstein a letter asking him to reconvene the panel "and reach consensus with respect to at least four additional candidates."
Similar requests have been recently made by the governor in regard to other nominating commissions, but they have sparked resignations only in this case.
Administration officials said the order had nothing to do with the younger Miller's application for the bench, but rather stemmed from a statewide trend of nominating panels putting forward only a few candidates for the governor to choose from. For example, in the case of a recent vacancy on the Court of Appeals, the appelate nominating commission initially forwarded only one name for the governor's consideration - effectively making the decision for him.
Last week, the Anne Arundel panel held another secret ballot and approved five additional names, including the younger Miller. Miller, 41, is a 12-year veteran of the Maryland Parole Commission and before that was a public defender in Prince George's County and an attorney in his father's Clinton law firm. David R. Blumberg, the Republican chairman of the parole board, said Miller's experience presiding over trial-like parole violation hearings qualified him for the bench.
Thomas Miller did not return calls yesterday. His father said that Miller remains "very upset" over public criticisms of his nomination, but that he had no intention of leaving the nominating pool.
Peters, a two-decade veteran of the Anne Arundel nominating commission, said that if the governor wanted more candidates, he should have asked the commission to re-advertise the position, rather than asking them to pick from candidates they had already rejected.
But Harris said yesterday that administration officials believed that 31 applicants for three entry-level judgeships was an "adequate pool" from which the commissioners could satisfy O'Malley's requirement of three new nominations per vacancy.