High court allows Gov. O'Malley to replace Alston

Maryland's highest court confirmed Friday that ousted Del. Tiffany Alston will not get her position back, and it gave Gov. Martin O'Malley broad power to fill the vacancy.

In a one-paragraph order, the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier ruling by Prince George's County Circuit Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. that gave O'Malley power to choose who represents the 24th District in the General Assembly. An opinion explaining the order is expected in the coming months.

Raquel Guillory, an O'Malley spokeswoman, said the governor was "pleased with the decision."

"Now the issue is settled, and we can move forward with ensuring the citizens of Prince George's County have representation," she said.

While the legal wrangling may be over, the political jockeying is just beginning. The Prince George's Democratic Central Committee still must formally withdraw its nomination of Greg Hall, the former drug dealer it named to replace Alston before O'Malley stalled in finalizing the appointment.

If and when they do so, O'Malley alone can appoint an Alston replacement. Guillory said O'Malley "will certainly take into account their consideration," though she noted, "It is the governor's decision."

Attorneys for Alston and Hall criticized the order — saying it could strip Prince George's residents of the ability to choose their own representative and erode the sanctity of plea bargaining across the state. Hall said the decision was "not justice" and put power in the hands of people unfamiliar with local concerns.

"I know the parks and what's going on in the streets with these people," Hall said. "If the governor has a problem with that, I challenge him to come down and debate me on the issues that's going on in my district."

The Court of Appeals ruling follows Nichols' decision that Alston was appropriately removed from her seat in October when she was convicted 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 probation before judgment.

Irwin Kramer, Alston's attorney, said he was "very concerned about what this means for the future of probations before judgment." He said that although Alston's legal options might be exhausted, her political ones were not.

"There is a higher authority, but that's two years away and it's called running for election, and she certainly is eligible to do that," he said.

Attorneys had made their final pitches to the Court of Appeals on Friday on how to fill the seat.

The judges could have ruled that Alston was improperly ousted after her October conviction. They also could have ruled that Hall deserved the spot because the law bound the governor to rubber-stamp Hall's appointment by the Prince George's County Democrats.

Walter Green, Hall's attorney, said that he hopes that when the Prince George's Democratic Central Committee votes on whether to withdraw Hall's name, they do so publicly and after seeking input from county residents.

"What's gotten lost here is that the people of Prince George's County, if the committee votes to rescind Greg's name, their voice is lost," Green said. "Their own elected representatives are saying, 'We voted for Greg in a contested election … and now we're going to take away our own voice and let the governor do what the governor's going to do.'"

The judges asked questions of lawyers for Alston, Hall and O'Malley during nearly two hours of arguments in the Annapolis courthouse Friday — sometimes positing outlandish hypothetical scenarios as they sought to understand the broader implications of their ruling.

They had to wade through several questions as they sorted out the legal morass, first determining whether Alston's conviction was "final" — and therefore correctly prompting her removal from office — or whether the result of her plea agreement undermined its finality. From there, the judges had to consider Hall.

The Prince George's Democratic Central Committee had picked Hall to replace Alston. Hall was a controversial selection because he has admitted to being a former crack dealer, and he was convicted of a misdemeanor weapons charge for his role in a gun battle that killed a 13-year-old boy in the early 1990s. O'Malley stalled in approving the appointment and eventually asked the committee to withdraw its nomination.

Green argued Friday that the committee had no right to take Hall's nomination back and that state law required the governor to rubber-stamp it within 15 days of receiving it. Lawyers for the governor argued that Hall's legal action stopped his name from being withdrawn more expeditiously, and that the governor's 15-day deadline was a suggestion, not a mandate.

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