During most election seasons, it’s hard to get less dramatic races than those for Montgomery County Circuit Court judges. Rarely does anyone challenge the judges in office, who got their positions after going through a complicated nominating process.
This year, as recent primary vote totals show, things are different.
The race, to be decided in November, involves a salacious controversy, allegations of misconduct, and a courthouse filled with lawyers who are at once fascinated and panicked about the whole thing.
“It’s a huge concern for every lawyer I know,” says Joe Fitzpatrick, a longtime local lawyer and former president of the Bar Association of Montgomery County.
The main players are incumbent Judge Audrey Creighton and challenger Daniel Patrick Connell.
Six weeks ago, Creighton, 53, admitted to having an affair with a violent felon who was arrested after allegedly attacking her in her house, where he had been living. The suspect, Rickley Senning, 24, has been jailed on charges of assault, kidnapping and other counts.
Although many Montgomery lawyers wonder whether such an association affects Creighton’s worthiness of a judgeship, they also worry about the position going to Connell, a virtual unknown in the local legal community who got on the ballot after bypassing the normal nominating process, designed to vet prospective candidates through a series of interviews before different committees.
At stake is a 15-year-term in office, to be held by someone who will preside over everything from murder trials to contentious divorces to multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
So far, Creighton appears to be holding up.
In the June 24 primary, voters were asked to select four judge candidates from five options. In addition to Creighton and Connell, voters could pick among three other sitting judges: Joan Ryon, Gary Bair and Nelson Rupp.
Based on total votes from the primary, Creighton finished second and Connell fifth. But because there was no clear order of finish between Republican and Democratic ballots, all five are set to square off in November for the four positions.
Connell, a lawyer who lives in Montgomery but has done most of his criminal work in Baltimore, says the fact the general election is four months away gives him a chance to get his message out. “I think there are some serious questions about Judge Creighton’s judgment and character,” he said.
Creighton’s supporters say that Connell is using the Senning abduction case, in which police accounts seem to indicate that Creighton was a victim, for political gain. They add that her strong primary totals suggest voters see her relationship with Senning as a private matter.
“She still has a right to mess up with men like anyone else,” said Rebecca Nitkin, a Rockville lawyer. “She’s a strong woman, and she doesn’t deserve to lose her judgeship because of a personal mess. She’s worked her whole life to be a judge.”
Creighton met Senning in 2008, before she was a judge. Senning was facing a series of charges, including assaulting two corrections officers in the county jail, and she was one of his defense attorneys. He was sentenced to five years in the state prison system.
Senning got out in early 2013, found a landscaping job and by June of that year had moved in with Creighton, according to court records. That same month, he was stopped by police while walking down the street, searched and charged with having a small marijuana cigarette in his wallet.
A short time later, according to court records, Senning learned that he had missed a court date in the marijuana case and that there was a bench warrant out for him — meaning that if he was picked up by police in another matter, he’d likely be arrested for failing to appear in court. Senning signed and submitted what lawyers describe as a smartly worded legal motion to the court, explaining that he had received a summons with the wrong court date.
When he came to court 11 days later, his case — quite by chance, apparently — was placed on Creighton’s docket.
She recused herself, according to the case file. “I have a conflict w/this case,” Creighton wrote in a note that was given to other court officials. “Can another judge take this?”
Another judge did, and the case was dispatched in a fashion similar to many minor marijuana arrests in Montgomery: Senning pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was fined.
Nearly a year later — after Senning had moved out of Creighton’s home and then back in — he allegedly attacked her. Creighton told police her relationship with Senning was platonic, but a day later she admitted in a court filing that he was an “intimate partner.”
Connell, the challenger, has scoured files from the 2013 marijuana case and raised several issues that he spelled out in open letters to other judges, trying to persuade them to distance themselves from Creighton. Among other points, Connell noted that there is a striking similarity between Creighton’s handwriting and the handwriting on the envelope that contained Senning’s motion to quash the bench warrant.
The judges, under their obligations, forwarded the letter to the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, an independent body that investigates judges. It is unclear whether the commission has started an investigation.
Creighton has declined to comment.
Charles Geyh, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and a national expert on proper judicial conduct, said that in general, state bodies that oversee judges will give them some leeway in whom they associate with in their private lives. And from what he can tell about the known allegations in the Creighton matter, Geyh doesn’t see enough to warrant removal from the bench.
But there are enough questions, he said, that the Maryland Commission should investigate the matter.
“When a judge fraternizes with criminals, it is a problem not so much because it ‘looks bad,’ ” Geyh said, “but because it puts judges at risk of entangling themselves in their friends’ problems, which may have happened here.”