- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Gov. Martin O’Malley now has names of four local attorneys to consider for an opening on the Charles County bench left vacant by the March retirement of Circuit Judge Steven G. Chappelle.
From a pool of seven applicants, the county’s judicial nominating committee selected private attorneys Patrick J. Devine and Thomas R. Simpson Jr., Charles County Deputy State’s Attorney Jerome R. Spencer and Deputy County Attorney Elizabeth D. Theobalds.
Eleven of the committee’s 13 members met June 7 to interview the applicants — who also included defense attorney Shara G. Hendler, public defender Makeba Gibbs and Douglas C. Cooley, the county’s master for juvenile causes — and vote on whom to nominate, committee Chairman Rudolf A. Carrico Jr. said.
“All [four] are legally professional and I have no problem with the names that have been or are being submitted to the governor,” Carrico said.
There is no limit on the number of nominations the committee can make, he added.
State law requires that appointed circuit court judges run for re-election in the general election, which follows the vacancy they were chosen to fill by at least one year.
Since Chappelle retired in March, whomever O’Malley (D) appoints must run in the 2014 election to remain on the bench. Circuit court judges are elected to 15-year terms.
There is no time frame for the governor to make his selection, spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said.
Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said he hopes the governor appoints someone in the “very near future ... because we certainly need a person on the bench.”
Middleton has reviewed the list of nominations and approved the committee’s work, calling each of the four tendered attorneys “very capable people.”
Qualities the senator said he looks for in a judge include “good command of what the law is and somebody that is not only competent, but wants to maintain this image we have in Charles County of being tough on crime, with safe communities.”
While he grew up with Simpson and has met with Theobalds, Middleton does not know Spencer or Devine well, but said he has heard from many citizens “really, really pushing for them because of their fairness, competency, work ethic and experience in front of the court.”
Admitted to the state bar in 1990, Devine has practiced law in the county for two decades. His first job out of law school was with the Charles County State’s Attorney’s Office, where he spent five years as prosecutor before leaving in 1995 to go into private practice.
Devine has applied and been nominated for one judicial opening in the past — in 2005, for the district court vacancy that went to Judge W. Louis Hennessy.
“I’m just happy to be included in the names going up to the governor,” Devine said.
Simpson, Spencer and Theobalds did not return calls seeking comment.
Middleton said he will take the time to meet with Spencer and Devine before providing O’Malley with input.
Among the four nominees, Theobalds is the lone woman and African-American. Diversity is among the factors the nominating committee takes into account when reviewing applicants, Carrico said.
Middleton became a vocal advocate for minority representation on the county’s bench in 2008, when none of the three finalists for a then-vacant circuit court judgeship were black.
Six months later, two African-Americans were among the six nominated for a judicial opening in Charles County District Court, including then-prosecutor Kenneth A. Talley, who ultimately was appointed to the position and remains the county’s lone black judge.
Following the 2010 census, Charles County became one of four “majority-minority” jurisdictions in the state with a population that is 51.6 percent minority and 41 percent black.
“There is a need,” said Janice Wilson, president of the Charles County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “It just makes sense that we would have more African-American presence in these positions, certainly in the circuit court. I think that’s very important to have that representation.”
Citing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, particularly with incarceration rates, Wilson said she hopes O’Malley “will recognize the attributes that [Theobalds] would bring to the position and she gets a fair shake at this.”
Middleton downplayed the importance of having a black circuit court judge, saying that the county’s courts “have diversity” now with Talley and two female judges in the circuit court. Instead, he said, it is important for the next judge to “have some sensitivity to the community that they represent.”
“Just because somebody is white doesn’t mean that African-Americans aren’t going to get a fair shake in court and vice versa,” he added.
Given that state law requires Charles County Circuit Judge Robert C. Nalley to retire when he turns 70 in September 2013, Middleton believes the primary consideration for the current vacancy should be the nominees’ qualifications.
“We’ve lost a number of very capable judges and we’re going to be losing Judge Nalley because of age in the near future, so it’s really important that this person is well-versed in what the laws are to maintain a knowledgeable court,” he said.