When Kerwin A. Miller Sr. first saw the number appear on his phone, he didn’t recognize it and thought it was a telemarketer. He considered not answering it.
He’s glad he did.
Gov. Larry Hogan was calling to tell Miller he had been appointed to the Harford County District Court.
Miller, working as an administrative law judge with the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings when Hogan phoned, called the news “humbling.”
Those who know Miller say the newly appointed judge will bring a strong work ethic, a sense of fairness and the experience of working in multiple arenas over an 18-year legal career to the Harford County District Court bench.
Miller, 45, of Aberdeen, will succeed former Judge Victor Butanis, who retired last January after 21 years, and will join sitting judges David E. Carey, Mimi R. Cooper and Susan H. Hazlett on the bench. Miller’s appointment was announced Dec. 12.
It had been a number of months since Miller completed the application and interview process, and it took a couple of seconds for it to sink in that it was, in fact, Hogan calling.
“To have his faith and confidence in you that you can — and will — do a great job and be good for Harford County, when that sinks in you know it’s a big deal,” he said.
Miller had applied to be a Harford Circuit Court judge in 2016 and interviewed with the governor then, after interviews with local, state and specialty bar associations. Then there are interviews with the Harford Judicial Nominating Commission, which forwards its nominations to the governor’s office. The governor makes the appointments, after interviews with the nominees.
The nominee must also be confirmed by the Maryland Senate.
Miller said he did not need to do another interview with Hogan, however, since the prior one was so recent.
“I hoped and prayed that I could get it,” he said of the judgeship.
Miller earned his law degree from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles and began working as an attorney in 2000. He has since been a private attorney in a solo practice, and worked with the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore city, and as a public defender in Baltimore city and county. He has also been with the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Cecil County State’s Attorney’s Office and his current position as a state administrative law judge.
“He’s well-rounded and has had an opportunity to be on all sides,” said Bel Air attorney Schniqua Roberts. “He has dedicated his life to public service, the public interest.”
Roberts, 45, of Abingdon, has known Miller since they worked in the Legal Aid Bureau child advocacy unit in the early 2000s, representing children in foster care.
“I think the governor made an excellent choice,” she said.
Miller said his experiences “all played a role, a part in that preparation” to be a judge, but his time with the Office of Administrative Hearings “has probably been the most significant part of that preparation.”
He has been an administrative law judge with the state since 2015. Miller said OAH judges handle more than 500 types of cases involving people appealing decisions made by various state agencies.
Judges can hear cases on matters such as a person being disqualified for a handgun permit, a social services department’s findings of child abuse or neglect or a state employee challenging a disciplinary action against them, Miller said.
“Anybody who was the subject of any adverse action or inaction by any state agency has the right to appeal that action, or inaction,” he said.
Miller recalled his time as a defense attorney and prosecutor, and he could follow a “script” in both positions, of either advocating for a client or presenting a criminal case. It is different as an administrative law judge, though.
“Your client is the system, the process so you have to learn to make credibility determinations without a script,” he said. “Being able to do that for three years has definitely put me in a great position for that transition [to District Court].”
District Court judges in Maryland earn an annual salary of $146,333, according to the Maryland Courts website. They serve 10-year terms, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
Miller said he must be sworn in within 30 days from the announcement of his appointment, and he expects a private swearing-in will happen this month.
Home and family life
Miller and his family have lived in Harford County since 2005. His wife, Alethea Miller, is a forensic interviewer with the Harford County Child Advocacy Center. The CAC is a “multi-disciplinary” agency charged with investigating cases of child abuse, including sexual abuse and exploitation, according to the center’s website.
His wife works with “the most vulnerable of victims,” Miller said.
“She deals with, I think, the most heinous types of situations,” he said.
They have two children: Alanna, 13, and Kerwin Jr., or “K.J.,” who is 12. Both are involved in youth sports — Alanna plays basketball and lacrosse, and K.J. plays baseball and basketball. Miller said his hobby is coaching them and many of their peers through community recreation programs in Aberdeen, Belcamp and Churchville.
“That’s what we love to do,” he said. “We’re always in a gym or on a field, and I’m always working with kids.”
Miller said he has worked with many of the children in local recreation leagues since they were 5 years old.
“Keeping them out of trouble, teaching them how to stay focused and set goals and achieve goals, and that’s all through sports,” he said. “We’ve always said there’s no future without the youth.”
Praise from colleagues
Roberts, Miller’s former Legal Aid Bureau colleague, said she and her family moved to Harford County, in part based on a recommendation of the community from Miller.
Her 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son are also involved in sports, and Miller has provided her advice in navigating youth sports. He has also been a resource in her solo law practice.
“If I had a question, he was a good go-to person,” Roberts said.
Michael Halter, chief felony prosecutor for the Cecil County State’s Attorney’s Office, called Miller to congratulate him after he got the news about his former colleague’s appointment.
Halter, 51, of Fair Hill, has worked as a defense attorney and prosecutor in Cecil County. He was with the State’s Attorney’s Office more than a decade ago when then-State’s Attorney Christopher Eastridge was looking to fill an assistant state’s attorney position.
Miller was recommended by Halter out of the pool of candidates.
“I just recall, even then, thinking how bright and energetic he was,” Halter said recently.
Miller joined the office as an assistant state’s attorney in 2008 and was elevated to deputy state’s attorney in 2009, according to his resume. He served in that position, as well as the chief homicide prosecutor, until 2015 when he joined the Office of Administrative Hearings.
“He was, beyond a doubt, one of the most motivated, knowledgeable prosecutors I’ve ever met in my life,” Halter said.
He described Miller as “one of the most grounded, down-to-earth, focused” people, whether he is focused on work or family.
“I have no doubt that he’ll take all that to the bench,” Halter said.
Rodney Hill, 56, of Glenwood in Howard County, is a former colleague from the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office. He knew Miller as a public defender, before Miller joined the prosecutor’s office in 2006.
Hill and his fellow prosecutors considered Miller “a very good attorney,” noting he fought hard for his clients but was not willing to “win at any cost” like some other public defenders he had known.
“If he were a professional fighter, he’d be considered a very clean fighter but a very good one,” Hill recalled. “As a result, everybody liked him.”
Hill and Miller have stayed in touch as their careers went in different directions. Hill, a retired Montgomery County police officer before becoming a prosecutor, has also worked in the general counsel’s office at Morgan State University, in the Baltimore City Solicitor’s office and as chief of internal affairs for Baltimore city police.
He said Miller will be a “really, really good judge,” based on his experience.
“He is a person who can address things from different angles and different viewpoints,” Hill said.
Miller grew up in the Bronx, New York. He was inspired to become an attorney through observing his family’s lawyer, who was dedicated to principles such as “everybody deserves a fair administration of justice” and to stand trial.
“That’s what sparked that interest, just a level playing field, a fair process and making sure everybody has that,” Miller said.
He noted that, based on his work as a defense attorney and prosecutor, “people can accept winning, people can accept losing to a certain extent, if they know the process was fair.”
Miller said he wanted to become a judge because of “my passion for the administration of justice.”
“As a judge you can guarantee that that process will be fair, and you guarantee that people in that process with be treated with a certain level of respect and dignity,” he said.
Miller said he wanted to know, as a litigator, that judges had made “a reasoned decision,” which he could accept even if he did not get exactly what he wanted from the courts.
He wants people who come before him in District Court to leave with the same feeling.
“If I can accomplish that, then I’ll be satisfied; I will have done my job,” he said.