Acting Governor Blair Lee III announced the appointment of two Prince George's County residents to judgeships this week when he appointed District Court Judge Robert H. Mason of Bowie to a seat on the Circuit Court, and C. Phillip Nichols Jr., a Laurel attorney, to the Orphans Court.
Both appointments have been hotly debated for the past few weeks within the County Democratic Advisory Committee's Breakfast Club sessions. The Nichols nod came as a complete surprse to many, including Nichols.
Nichols, who has a substantial probate pratice before the Orphans Court, said he "was not the odds-on favorite" for the slot.
"I'm really surprised and pretty excited about it (the appointment)," he said this week in a telephone interview.
The Advisory Committee, acting on a vote of the Breakfast Club, sent two other names to Lee for consideration for the Orphans Court post. But a last minute intercession by a political ally of Nichols' and the strong support of Mary O'Hare, chief judge of the Orphans Court, may have reacquainted Lee with Nichols' qualifications, sources said.
"This was an opportunity to make an excellent appointment," according to one source. "Phil is highly qualified for the job and if you're going to end in two names, you should send in the third."
The Mason appointment, although not as surprising to party regulars, cause some "bitter" words at a Breakfast Club meeting this week. Two others were also considered for the post and, cources said, the vote was close on the club favorite.
Del. Frank Pesci, who attended the meeting and supported a candidate other than Mason, said, "I would not say the debate was bitter, but it was sometimes emotional. When we look to pick a Circuit Court judge, we look and see who's served an apprenticeship in the lower court. This 'apprenticeship' could be disputed and was. The two courts have different roles. The District Court is intimately involved with people; the Circuit Court deals with appeals, murders, criminals. A lawyer with broad experience could do well in the court. It is a philosophical difference of opinion."
Mason, a District Court judge since 1975, disagreed.
"The District Court is the people's court and is equally important although of different atmosphere than the Circuit Court," he said.
Mason, appointed to fill the vacancy of Judge James Couch, who was elevated to the Court of Special Appeals in October, was a Juvenile Court Master for five years before his judgeship and has several as an assistant state's attorney and teacher in the county.
"I am very pleased with the appointment," Mason, a Democrarat, said. "For an attorney and for a judge, nothing could be more flattering."
Nichols, 30, and a fifth generation Laurel resident, succeeds Judge Callie Mae Heffron who resigned in September to become registrar of wills. A partner in the law of Nichols and Hurtt, Nichols has taught probate at the Prince George's Community College and was a District Court Commissioner.
Even though a Nichols is a Democrat, he supported a Democrat in the 1974 election who opposed the party regulars's Blue Ribbon candidates. It was this support, sources said, that may have hurt him with the Breakfast Club in his bid for the Orphans Court judgeship.
It was the second time in recent months that Lee has gone against the recommendations of the Breakfast Club in making court appointments. In September, he appointed a Republican, Francis Borelli, to the Districto Court over two other attorneys - both Democrats - recommended to him. At that time, Lance Billingsley, chairman of the county Democratic committee, said the Borelli appointment was "a flat rejection of the opinion of the political leadership of Prince George's County. It is an alienation of the leadership."
Although Billingsley could not be reached for comment on the Nichols appointment, a supporter of the appointment and member of the Breakfast Club, said "if we send Lee the names of the most qualified people, he will appoint them. If we're not, and he knows it, he'll just have to make other appointments. He's not going out of his way to be rude to us."
Both Nichols and Mason will have to run for full terms in the November general election.