Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, bucking Prince George's County sentiment over a judicial appointment for the second time in recent months, has refused to appoint the local consensus candidates for a Circuit Court judgeship.
Lee objected to the intention of the local commission that nominates judges to recommend only one name for the judicial post since only one person had applied, a situation unique in the county's history. Lee said he wants more names although he will probably wind up picking the local favorite, District Court Judge Vincent J. Fernia.
The decision immediately drew criticism from Lee's Prince George's rival in next year's gubernatorial campaign, State Senate President Steny Hoyer Jr., although both Lee and Hoyer said publicly their disagreement had no political meaning.
But Lance Billingsley, Prince George's Democratic Party chairman, said yesterday, "I certainly have to fee (Lee's decision) had some political motivation. It's quite obvious that Blair Lee is running for governor and that Steny is one of his opponents."
Lee told the local nominating commission last week through state court administrator William Adkins, that the judicial contest should be reopened and more names solicited: "Otherwise," he said, "you just destroy the integrity of the whole system," which is supposed to make the appointment to some extent independent of local sentiment.
"This has nothing to do with Femia as an individual," Lee said yesterday. "I regard him highly. The chances are I will appoint him anyway, if his name comes back with two or three others."
Hoyer, who said he protested Lee's position in a telephone conversation with the acting governor Thursday, took public issue with him yesterday. The requirement of more names for the post, Hoyer told a reporter, would only create "a charade of competition."
To ask for more names simply for the sake of appearance, Hoyer said, is "intellectually and politically dishonest."
In the competition for past judgeships, Gov. Marvin Mandel, an ally of Hoyer's had almost invariably gone along with the Prince George's choice. In August, Lee broke the tradition by passing over the choices of the county's bar and political leadership to select a Republican for a District Court vacancy.
Lee called that choice "without a doubt the most difficult" he had had to make since becoming acting governor. "In that big county (Prince George's), there ought to be a Republican on the bench," he said.
The situation posed by the Femia nomination is unique in Prince George's County because never before has only one candidate applied for a judgeship, a circumstance Lee incredulously called "a strange and wonderful situation" in a county of more than 600 lawyers.
Femia, a former prosecutor who is generally well-liked by his peers, was frustrated in his effort a year ago to rise to the Circuit Court bench when the nomination commission found him insufficiently qualified. The panel's action angered Prince George's most potent political leaders who felt he was qualified and supported his candidacy.
Judicial candidates are voted upon by the county bar, found qualified or not by the nominating commission and then endorsed or rejected by the so-called "Breakfast Club" of Democratic Pary leaders before the governor chooses. Under an executive order, Price George's must send at least, four names for each vacancy, but that has never been strictly followed.
Femia's desire to seek the seat vacated by retiring Judge William B. Bowie was so well-known around the county that only one other lawyer, Jim Kenkel, considered making the race for the seat. Kenkel decided not to, he said, because Femia "got started ahead of me, and Vance and I start from the same base of support."
At Femia's request, attorneys Bill Beckett and Howard Stern held meetings in their north and south county offices in August at which 79 lawyers agreed to campaign for Femia in the bar contest.
Since no one else applied, there was no contest, although bar members are voting anyway on whether they feel Femia is qualified.
"We can't get started down the road where there is only one on the list," Lee said yesterday. "Otherwise, the selection is in the hands of the bar association or a tacit conspiracy worked up by others."
Hoyer said the lack of competition showed merely that "in effect the system is righting itself" for finding Femia unqualified last year. "That's the strength of our system," he said.
As for Femia, he said this week his lack of competitors "came as somewhat of a surprise to me." As to Lee's decision, he said, "I'm not complaining. I'll follow it by the rule."