2014 | Politics

Amid Quiet Fall Election, Judgeship Contest Roils Local Legal And Political Circles

Charges, countercharges fly over fitness of one incumbent - and a non-incumbent

From left: Judge Audrey Creighton and attorney Daniel Patrick Connell

www.crsjmd.com (left), Connell for the Court Facebook page (right)

Amid a general election notable for few competitive races at the county level, local legal and political circles continue to be roiled by charges and countercharges surrounding this year’s contest for four Circuit Court judgeships.

There seems little question that three of the incumbent judges — Gary Bair, Joan Ryon and Nelson Rupp – will be elected next week to the 15-year terms provided by law. The controversy involves the qualifications and fitness of the other two candidates: Judge Audrey Creighton, appointed earlier this year to fill a Circuit Court vacancy, and attorney Daniel Patrick Connell, the non-incumbent in the contest.

What may ultimately be on trial in the court of public opinion is the wisdom of compelling judges to compete in the electoral arena in the same manner as those seeking political office. A contested judicial election in Montgomery County 12 years ago prompted a debate in the Maryland Legislature about modifying the current system; this year’s contest seems likely to reignite that discussion.

Amid the multiple issues surrounding the current race, the central events have unfolded as follows:

**Connell, a Montgomery County resident who in recent years has served as a State Department legal adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, filed against the four incumbents hours before the Feb. 25 deadline. “I filed on the last day because I realized that no one is going to challenge these guys – again,” he said, referring to the norm of sitting Circuit Court judges running unopposed after first being appointed to the bench. For Connell – himself the subject of controversy over the extent of his experience practicing law in Montgomery County – it marked his second bid for a Circuit Court judgeship here: In 2004, while a Democrat and practicing law in Baltimore, he accepted the nomination of the Libertarian Party to run. 

**On May 19 – in an incident widely covered in local media outlets – Creighton, 54, lodged assault and kidnapping charges against Rickley Senning, 25, an ex-felon for whom she had served as a defense attorney in 2008 prior to his being sentenced to a prison term. Upon his release last year, he moved in with Creighton, who was named a District Court judge in 2010 before being appointed to a Circuit Court opening this past February. In a court filing subsequent to the May 19 incident, Creighton identified herself as an “intimate partner” of Senning.

**In the June 24 primary, the incumbent judges and Connell cross-filed in the Democratic and Republican primaries, in what is considered a non-partisan judicial election. The four incumbents won the nominations at stake in the Democratic primary, with Creighton – the second Hispanic-American to serve as a Montgomery County judge – garnering the second highest vote total. In the Republican primary, however, Connell finished first and Creighton last. As a result, both the four incumbents and Connell appear on the general election ballot.

In an open letter to Creighton’s three fellow judges–dated two weeks before the primary–Connell voiced several allegations about Creighton’s behavior, including that she had initially misled the police about the nature of her relationship with Senning and that she had improperly assisted him in defending himself when he was charged with marijuana possession last year.

“I really thought when I wrote that open letter that they would reconsider the wisdom of the endorsement of her candidacy,” Connell said of the other judges. “But instead they kind of dug their heels in and went with the slogan ‘Support your sitting judges’.”

But both local political parties have opted to stick with the sitting judges as well over a point central to the controversy: the nearly five decade-old Maryland system in which commissions comprised of attorneys and citizens review judgeship applicants. These panels then make recommendations to the governor for filling appellate and District Court vacancies, as well as those at the Circuit Court level. But, under the state constitution as now written, only Circuit Court judges must subsequently run in contested elections.

“There is a 50-year tradition in Montgomery County of both parties supporting the sitting judges, and…supporting the judicial vetting process and the nomination process by the executive, as opposed to making this a purely ballot box issue,” said Michael Higgs, who chairs the county’s Republican Central Committee. “I think the position of judges is a little too important to leave it up to nothing but the popularity of a certain candidate,” added Higgs, also an attorney in private practice here.

All four incumbent judges, including Creighton, went through the vetting process cited by Higgs prior to being appointed to the Circuit Court, while Connell has not. The Republican sample ballot being circulated in advance of next week’s election does not include his name, even though he finished first in the June Republican primary among the judicial candidates. Connell late last week charged the local GOP has opted “to repudiate the votes of their members.”

But the Republican central committee, after what Higgs described as “lots of discussion,” also opted to omit Creighton’s name from the sample ballot, leaving the other three judges on it. “We came to the conclusion that we simply could not support the re-election of Judge Creighton, given the ethical concerns we have regarding her on-going situation,” said Higgs.

At least one well-known local Republican doesn’t agree. “As an attorney, I have appeared before Judge Creighton, and she’s an excellent judge,” declared James Shalleck, the GOP’s nominee for county executive this year. He said he supports the retaining Creighton and the other three incumbents. (The county Democratic Central Committee includes Creighton and the other sitting judges on its sample ballot, as the winners of that party’s primary.)

For his part, Connell is dismissive of the current process of vetting judges prior to appointment, terming the nominating commissions a “13-member secret panel,” while asserting: “I have been vetted. I have security clearances across the board. I am a member of the [Maryland] Bar with an exemplary record for almost two decades.”

But Creighton’s defenders, particularly those in the legal community, see Connell as trying to evade the vetting process undergone by virtually all seated as judges in Maryland. “Given the choice between voting for a member of the bench who went through the rigorous judicial selection process and an individual who never bothered to submit himself through the process and instead simply paid the $50 filing fee to appear on the ballot to become a Circuit Court judge, I will vote for the sitting judge,” declared District 15 Del. Kathleen Dumais, also a Rockville-based attorney.

“I often tell people I’ll run for office any day before I go through this vetting process that people who get on the bench have to go through,” added Dumais, who is acting as spokeswoman for the committee established to push for the re-election of the four incumbents. ”Is it perfect? Of course not. But…there’s a true investigation of the individual that goes on,” including criminal background checks and an examination of the record of grievances filed against attorneys.

Connell has not minced words in criticizing Creighton. “What she did are crimes…harboring a fugitive, obstructing justice, lying to the police,” he declared, “This is almost a decade in jail if she were prosecuted.”

Creighton’s defenders are quick to respond that Connell’s assertions are yet to be proven. Dumais pointed to the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, an independent body created to investigate allegations against judges. That commission is believed to be reviewing the charges in Connell’s letter of June, although the status of the investigation is unclear.

“What is at issue here are two processes,” she said. “The first is the judicial selection process, the second is the Judicial Disabilities Commission. We’ve got this election in the middle of it. But I believe in both of those processes, and we’ve got to give both of them the ability to play out.”

But it has clearly put Creighton’s supporters in the legal community in the awkward position of asking voters to re-elect her while trusting the process to work.

“The allegations are serious enough that voters are entitled to an explanation or, failing that, to consider alternative candidates,” the Washington Post editorialized last week. The newspaper, whose opinion tends to be particularly influential in so-called “down ballot” races in the county, termed Connell a “qualified alternative.”

As the editorial suggested, one key player in this controversy has yet to be heard from. Creighton has been excused from presiding over trials pending a scheduled Nov. 17 court date for Senning in conjunction with the allegations that he assaulted and kidnapped her last May.

“She would love to comment in detail, but she does not think she is allowed to or can,” said Creighton’s attorney, Paul Kemp. “It’s not something that a victim of domestic violence should have to do, but…because it’s an election issue, she would love to put forth her side of the story. But I’ve advised her not to – I don’t think she can under the rules of professional conduct.”