"People perceived I had it locked up," said Vincent J. Femia, a Prince Geoge's County lower court judge who expected to be appointed to the higher Circuit Court bench last month.
Femia, was, indeed, "in line" for the promotion, according to just about everyone involved in Prince George's politics. Today he remains on the District Court hearing traffic cases and misdemeanors while another man holds the Circuit Court seat, the result of a momentary breakdown in the established way of doing things in the county as well as in the rest of Maryland.
The Prince George's legal and political communities are now wringing their collective hands over what happened, trying to make sure it doesn't happen again.
In its simplest terms, Vincent Femia did not get the judgeship because two seats on a judicial selection commission that makes recommendations for appointments to the governor were unoccupied at a meeting where Femia was to be selected.
Depending on people's perceptions, the swearing-in last week of Howard A. Chasanow to the Circuit Court seat is either just a fluke, a defeat for the county's most powerful politicians or evidence that the fabled Prince George's political machine isn't so powerful after all.
Femia, 40, a District Court judge since June, 1972, reportedly had the backing of persons widely regarded as the county's most powerful politicians: Peter F. O'Malley, and attorney without political office and an old personal friend: Tom Farrington, O'Malley law partner and Democratic national committeeman for Maryland; State Senate President Steny Hoyer, of District Heights, and Arthur A. (Bud) Marshall, Jr., the Prince George's state's attorney to whom Femia was chief deputy for four years.
Femia, a graduate of George Washington University Law School, lives in Accokeek and is known as a hardline "cop judge." Chasanow, 39, and Seabrook resident, is a Harward Law School graduate and had been a District Court judge since 1971.
Viewed as a man without political ties, Chasanow nonetheless had political support from State Sens. Meyer Emanuel Jr., an accountant, and Arthur Dorman, an optometrist, and from Fifth District Rep. Gladys Spellman - not enough, according to conventional wisdom.
Officially, the selection of judges was taken out of politics by a 1970 governor's executive order. Gov. Marvin Mandel created commissions in each of the state's Eight Circuits to send him names of qualified candidates from whom the governor would fill judgeships. In the case of politically powerful Prince George's County, and most other counties, Mandel is known to respect the recommendation of the local political leadership.
Each commission is composed of six lawyers, chosen by other lawyers, six nonlawyers, and a chairman, who is appointed by the governor and may or may not be a lawyer. Prince George's nonlawyer members are, in effect, selected by the "Breakfast Club," a biweekly meeting of elected county Democrats.
In this Seventh Circuit, there are five commissioners from Prince George's, there from Charles and two each from Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
"Realistically," said John Buchanan, the commission chairman, "politics is still a factor."
Judicial candidates are required to file with the nominating commissions, but it is in the 650-member Prince George's County Bar Association where the first major test comes - a membership poll. Some say it's a popularity contest. Others say that no substantial challengers file once the word circulates that a particular individuals is "next in line" for a judgeship.
According to some lawyers, obtaining a judgeship requires connections or at least party work, before a candidate is "anointed" by the political potentates.
Increasingly, in recent years, the bench has filled up with persons who met one or both qualifications. Judge Jacon S. Levin rose to the bench after he headed the "blue-ribbon" committee that chose the Democratic organization slate in the 1974 election. Judge James F. Couch had no luck in two unsuccessful runs for a judgeship until he became politically active. His former law partner, Albert T. Blackwell, became a Circuit Court judge after helping to run a political campaign. Judge Robert J. Woods was a law partner of State Senate President Hoyer.
"There was a lot of talk among folks I was next in line," Femia said last week. "I don't know who can make that statement . . . I think they talk it around and they get their rumors back and it's gospel . . . I said I'd done my homework, touched all necessary political and bar association bases. I said I'd done all I could to lock it up . . ."
Femia said he solicited and received support from Hoyer and O'Malley. "You must not have the enmity of Mr. O'Malley," Femia said, "You don't want to be a political enemy of his."
Chasanow said last week he did not seek O'Malley's support, because he knew of his longtime friendship with Femia, and had a "very noncommital" conversation with Hoyer.
Supposedly, Chasanow was next in line after Femia. Two or three vacancies ago, Chasanow had run for Circuit Court, against Levin, and lost in both the bar and Breakfast Club. "It was if he'd committed a high crime" by running against Levin, said one lawyer.
After supporters of Femia and Chasanow made phone calls on their behalves, the bar association vote was very close. Chasanow won 184 to 174, with public defender Edward S. Camus running a distant third. The Femia and Chasanow vote was close enough, most political insiders believe, that Femia would have won the Breakfast Club endorsement and, hence, the judgeship.
"If both (names) had come to the Breakfast Club, vince would have won," said Tom Farrington last week. But both didn't.
What Farrington calls "the fluke" occurred in the nominating commission. The governor may appoint only candidates found "legally and professionally most fully qualified" by seven members of the commission, and Femia didn't make it.
When the Nov. 30 commission meeting was held, only three of the five Prince George's seats were filled. The Breakfast Club hadn't gotten around to filling the vacant nonlawyer seat. Lawyer Gary Alexander would be chosen by the other lawyer members that night, just prior to the vote on the judicial candidates, but he would not be there to participate. In addition, there were three absences from other counties.
When Femia got only fove votes, there was public outrage by State's Attorney Marshall, Hoyer and others who felt Femia was "fully qualified" and his failure to receive such a rating reflected unfairly on him and his county.
Beyond such perceived slights, the vote prevented the Breakfast Club from in effect appointing him.
Farrington and John Buchanan, the commission chairman and a Prince George's attorney, discussed whether the names could be recalled from Mandel for another vote. O'Malley also played a role, according to Farrington. "Pete called up to find out what had happened," Farrington said. "John knew Pete felt the same way I did. It has been a disappointment to Pete because he was close to Vince."
Buchanan said he ran into Hoyer at the county courthouse. "He asked if the list had gone to the governor," Buchanan recalled. Told it had, Buchanan said Hoyer shrugged, "That's it. So be it."
Buchanan phoned William H. Adkins, state court administrator, who said the recall idea was a bad one that would undermine the integrity of all the nominating commissions.
While the recall effort was under way, the Breakfast Club delayed action on the judgeship a week. Officially, county party chairman Lance Billingsley said it was because Hoyer was out of town. Hoyer told a reporter it was because the state nominating commissions were meeting that week to review their procedures.
On Monday, Dec. 20, there was agonizing at the Breakfast Club, and, finally, the conclusion that there was nothing left to do but back the bar association winner, Howard Chasanow.