Sheila Dixon will likely remain Baltimore's mayor until she is sentenced - which could be months from now - or steps down, according to city and state lawyers. But even that is open to legal interpretation.
It's one of the many questions raised Tuesday following Dixon's misdemeanor conviction for spending charity gift cards on herself, and acquittal on three similar charges. Also up in the air is what her sentence will be and whether prosecutors plan to retry her on the one count the jury could not decide.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys are hoping to alter the outcome through post-trial motions, and the judge can't enter his final judgment until those are settled, lawyers said. And no one was quite sure even who would remove her from office, should it come to that.
"I suppose it's me; I'm the city's lawyer. It could be up to me by default," said City Solicitor George Nilson. "But as somebody who serves at the pleasure of the mayor, I may be the least appropriate person to make that decision."
The confusion stems from a little-used area of Maryland's Constitution governing the "suspension and removal of elected officials convicted of crimes." It outlines criteria for removal and even reinstatement following a successful appeal. But Article 15, Section 2 is an untested area that's ripe for guesswork, said David Gray, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
"No court in the state of Maryland has squarely ruled on the application of this provision of the Maryland Constitution," Gray said. "The best you're going to be able to do is collect opinions."
The law suggests automatic removal upon a felony conviction, but it's a little murkier on misdemeanors, and it doesn't definitively define the word "conviction." It outlines several criteria for removal from office: a misdemeanor conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude that's punishable by jail. The crime must also be related to the "public duties and responsibilities" of the officeholder.
Many legal professionals agree that a jury verdict does not quite constitute a formal conviction, preferring instead that an official judgment be entered by the presiding judge and in some instances a sentence on top of that. But a lawsuit could conceivably be filed to trigger Dixon's removal earlier, some experts said.
Along with Nilson, Maryland's attorney general's office considers sentencing to be the time at which a suspension would take effect, which means the mayor most likely would not be removed from office until then. State law dictates that she be replaced by the City Council president, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake.
If Dixon's sentence is "probation before judgment" - which erases a conviction upon successful completion of probation - she could get to stay, some attorneys concluded.
"What the citizens would like to know is what is it that the prosecution is going to say to" get a more significant sentence, said James I. Cabezas, chief investigator for the state prosecutor's office. "But I can't show my cards on that."
State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh said he'd decide by the end of the week whether to retry Dixon on count 6, which had to do with misappropriating gift cards that were part of a "Holly Trolley" charity tour and split the jury 9 to 3 in favor of conviction. But he gave away little else Tuesday.
And Dixon gave no indication that she was ready to go. Her defense attorney said all options were being considered, however.
Warren Brown, a Baltimore defense attorney who's followed the trial closely, said he believed Dixon has no options. "She's lost any aura of innocence," he said, calling the mayor "shamed and disgraced."
But it's still unclear who could force her out.
Because she's a city mayor, there's no state client involved, so the job doesn't fall to Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler - though he would issue an opinion if asked, said his spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory.
And Gov. Martin O'Malley has no role because suspension is done automatically "by operation of law," according to an advisory letter by Dan Friedman, who counsels the General Assembly.
It's also possible that Dixon could argue that she should not be removed from her current office because the actions for which she was convicted occurred while she was City Council president. That's a "stickier question," Gray said.
"There's a plausible argument the mayor could make that it did not relate to her public duties and responsibility as the mayor of Baltimore City," Gray said. That decision, along with most others, will likely be left to a judge.
Attorney Andrew D. Levy, who also teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law, said that the verdict would probably enhance the chances of a plea deal in the March trial, which will examine whether the mayor failed to report lavish gifts from her boyfriend on city ethics forms and lied about it.
"It complicates her argument," Levy said.
What the state constitution says
Criteria for removal from office for a misdemeanor under the Maryland Constitution:
* There must be a conviction.
* The crime must be related to public duties and responsibilities.
* It involves "moral turpitude," meaning essentially that it's contrary to community standards of just behavior.
* It is punishable by jail time.