Judge Allows Challenge to Gansler's Candidacy to Go On -- for Now

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge refused yesterday to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Douglas F. Gansler's constitutional eligibility to be Maryland's attorney general, forcing the Democratic nominee to cancel a campaign appearance and testify in court.

Judge Ronald A. Silkworth said he probably would rule this week on whether Gansler meets the requirement that candidates for the post have practiced law in Maryland for 10 years, but the judge predicted that the case would end up in appeals court.

A decision to remove Gansler, Silkworth acknowledged, would create turmoil. "What are we, two weeks before the election?" he asked. "How in the world would it be anything but chaotic?"

The race for attorney general endured one such upheaval when the state Court of Appeals ousted Montgomery County Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) from the election less than three weeks before the Democratic primary. The election was further shaken in August when Silkworth ruled that Maryland's early voting law was unconstitutional, a decision upheld by the high court.

Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney, had declined to appear yesterday morning for the hearing, saying that his 17 years in the Maryland State Bar make him eligible for the job and that the lawsuit is a "a frivolous, silly, desperate" political maneuver by his Republican rival, Frederick County prosecutor Scott L. Rolle. The Bowie bartender who filed the lawsuit is being represented by Jason Shoemaker, Rolle's campaign manager.

But when Shoemaker told the judge he wished to call Gansler as a witness, Silkworth directed Gansler's attorney, Carmen Shepherd, to find him. Gansler was reached in Baltimore moments before he was to participate in a radio interview. Gansler completed the interview but skipped an appearance in Harford County to drive to Annapolis.

The court hearing resumed in the afternoon with the unusual spectacle of a candidate being questioned on the stand by his rival's campaign manager.

Gansler seemed eager to talk and at one point ignored the objections of an assistant attorney general and continued answering a question from Shoemaker.

Gansler conceded that apart from his nearly eight years as a Montgomery prosecutor, his experience with what he called "substantial Maryland law" was limited. "For your purposes, I would say none."

Shoemaker seized on Gansler's admission as evidence that the Democrat falls short of the 10-year requirement. "The testimony from Mr. Gansler proves that," Shoemaker told the judge.

Gansler and his attorney argued that his legal experience -- including work for two private firms in the District, service on Montgomery's Commission on Aging and the county NAACP criminal justice committee, and pro bono work -- meets the state constitution's requirements.

Perez has been a member of the Maryland bar for five years, and although the Court of Appeals issued no opinion explaining its ruling, many legal observers said that is probably what led to Perez's ouster.

Silkworth asked skeptical questions of both sides, probing Gansler's legal experience but expressing concern about what would happen if Gansler were forced off the ballot.

Shoemaker said that if Gansler remained on the ballot, the governor could be left to decide after the election whether he is qualified. "Who is going to decide the qualifications for this candidate?" Shoemaker asked. "Is it going to be the governor or is it going to be the judiciary?"

Nikos Liddy, the Bowie man who filed the suit Oct. 20, testified that he is a voter who became concerned about Gansler's eligibility after doing research on the Internet, which he turned to because of distrust of the media. "Whenever you watch TV, you have somebody holding a puppy," Liddy testified.

Silkworth rejected arguments by the state that Liddy had missed deadlines after the primary for challenging Gansler.

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