Maryland’s highest court ruled Wednesday that former state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks will remain on the June 26 primary election ballot and ordered a lower court to dismiss a legal action — supported by Oaks — to remove the disgraced senator as an option for voters next month.
By a 5-2 vote, the Court of Appeals ordered the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court to dismiss a legal action brought by three of Oaks’ former constituents to have him removed from the ballot. The court sided with the state Board of Elections, which had argued that ordering a change would disrupt the statewide election process.
The case was sent back to Anne Arundel County “with direction that the court dismiss the complaint,” wrote Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.
Two other candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination for the Northwest Baltimore Senate seat, but the appeals court ruling leaves open the possibility of voters choosing a candidate who faces a lengthy prison sentence and no longer wants the job.
Oaks pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in March, after the deadline to voluntarily withdraw his candidacy. He is scheduled to be sentenced in July and, if he receives prison time, would be legally ineligible to serve in the General Assembly.
Oaks resigned his seat in the Senate the same day he entered his plea. His lawyer has said that if he wins the nomination, he will decline to accept it. That would leave it up to the party’s central committee to pick a replacement.
H. Mark Stichel, a lawyer for three voters in Oaks’ district, argued before the court Wednesday that the public will be confused if the longtime Democratic politician is allowed to remain on the ballot. Stichel said he was disappointed with the court’s ruling.
“We hope that the case has raised awareness in Legislative District 41 that any vote cast for Mr. Oaks on the primary election ballot is a wasted vote,” he said.
Oaks could not be reached for comment.
The elections board argued it would be wrong to change the rules for Oaks, and that making a change so soon before the primary would be costly and disruptive. Andrea Trento, the state’s lawyer, said that on a scale of 1 to 10 for how easy it would be to make a change, with 10 being impossible, the number would be at least at nine.
“It’s difficult to say if it would be possible,” Trento said.
The seven red-robed judges of the Maryland Court of Appeals questioned lawyers on both sides for about an hour Wednesday.
State law sets clear deadlines for when the state can remove a candidate’s name, and several of the judges questioned what criteria elections officials would use if the court found they could ignore the dates.
A lower court judge initially refused to remove Oaks’ name, concluding that he remained a valid candidate at least until his sentencing. So Stichel’s team convinced Oaks to give up his voter registration, invalidating his candidacy. The judge took up the case again and that time ordered Oaks stricken from the ballot.
Appellate Judge Joseph M. Getty questioned whether by sanctioning the strategy Oaks used, the appeals court would be creating a way for candidates to do an end-run around the election deadlines.
“If we allow a manufactured or engineered disqualification in this case, we’ve opened up the election code,” Getty said.
But Judge Shirley M. Watts, who dissented along with Judge Michele D. Hotten, called that idea a “red herring.”
What mattered, Watts said, was that a group of voters had filed a complaint and that it was filed under a different section of law than the one imposing deadlines on the elections board.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, who was appointed to the seat to fill the vacancy left by Oaks resignation, is running for it in her own right. She faces J. D. Merrill, a former teacher who is ex-Gov. Martin O’Malley’s son in law.
Three voters in Oaks’ district — Nancy Lewin, Elinor Mitchell and Christopher Ervin — filed their case last month to remove his name in Circuit Court in Anne Arundel County, where the state board is located. They lost when the judge determined he lacked the authority to remove a technically valid candidate.
By the time Oaks gave up his voter registration and the judge reversed his decision — ordering the state board to remove Oaks — election officials had already starting to print the ballots.
The elections board quickly filed an appeal, saying that complying with the order threatened to disrupt the preparations for the election statewide.
Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.