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Politics

Judge’s donation to Baltimore State’s Attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah raises ethical questions

Deep in Baltimore State’s Attorney candidate Thiru Vignarajah’s campaign finance report is a potentially problematic donation from a sitting Baltimore District Court judge.

Judge Flynn Owens is listed as having donated $100 to Democrat Vignarajah’s campaign on March 31. Owens listed employer and occupation, a requirement for donors, as “State of MD” and “Legal.”

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It is a violation of the Maryland Judicial Code of Conduct for any sitting judge to make a political contribution to any candidate, let alone a candidate running for a political office that the judge is involved with. As a Baltimore District Court judge, Owens oversees cases brought by the state’s attorney’s office.

A 1972 Maryland Judicial Ethics Committee opinion makes clear the rules around contributions and political support, with the authors writing that it would be “improper for a judge publicly to support or endorse the candidacy of any individual seeking election to office.”

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Requests for comment to Judge Owens’ chambers were not immediately returned Friday. A spokesperson for the Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts said the judiciary cannot comment on personnel matters.

However, a source with knowledge of the Vignarajah donation told The Baltimore Sun that Owens’ credit card “was used without his permission or knowledge,” and a refund was requested.

But, Owens also made a $50 political contribution to Comptroller Peter Franchot in January 2021, campaign finance records show. District Court judges are prohibited from making any political contributions.

Vignarajah may have also committed an ethical violation when his campaign accepted a donation from Owens’ card. The Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct states that attorneys are not allowed to “knowingly assist a judge or judicial officer in conduct that is a violation of applicable rules of judicial conduct or other law.”

“We received hundreds of big and small donations and it came to my attention that a single $100 donation was submitted in the name of a former colleague and current judge,” Vignarajah said Friday in an interview. “We have promptly refunded the donation.”

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When Vignarajah was a federal prosecutor, Owens was a defense attorney and they are friends, Vignarajah said. However, Vignarajah does not remember ever having a case in front of Owens as a judge.

“We did not solicit this donation, or any donation from judges,” he said.

Under the Maryland Constitution, the Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct and the Judicial Code of Conduct are considered to have the force of law, meaning they are binding. However, violating them carries no criminal penalty, and any punishment would be administrative in nature and come from the respective bodies governing judges and lawyers’ behavior.

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Vignarajah raised more money in the most recent donation period than either of his competitors — Ivan Bates and two-term incumbent State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby — with $600,784 in contributions, according to campaign finance reports. Bates reported raising $449,328 and Mosby reported $32,738 over the same time period.

Robyn Murphy, Mosby’s campaign consultant, called out Vignarajah over the donation in an emailed statement to The Sun.

“It should be no surprise to anyone that Thiru believes he doesn’t have to play by the rules,” Murphy said.

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, appointed Owens to the District Court bench April 11, 2014. In Maryland, District Court judges serve a 10-year appointment.


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