The party affiliation of Thomas Pelagatti, a candidate for Calvert County state's attorney, was incorrect in an article yesterday. He is a Democrat. (Published 5/31/90)

He has been called "the law south of Lyons Creek."

But crusty, controversial Calvert County Circuit Judge Perry G. Bowen Jr. won't be sitting on any more criminal cases there until after the November election, in which he has publicly endorsed the state's attorney.

So ruled the Maryland Court of Appeals in the case of Bowen, 62, who "retired" 2 1/2 years ago to spend more time working on his farm, but who has since been recalled to active duty on a regular basis.

Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the appeals court, in a "Dear Perry" letter dated Friday, noted that Bowen has admitted being "in error." Murphy said the appeals court judges decided to "continue your designation to sit" in Calvert County -- but only on civil cases there between now and the election.

Meanwhile, Murphy said, Bowen can sit on criminal cases in other counties in the 7th Judicial Circuit, which also includes Charles, St. Mary's and Prince George's.

The unusual action was prompted by Bowen's attending a May 3 fund-raiser for Calvert County State's Attorney Warren Sengstack, on whose behalf he spoke. Judges are barred by their code of ethics from such political activity because it can create an appearance of favoritism.

Sengstack's only challenger so far, Republican Thomas M. Pelagatti, appears as a criminal defense lawyer opposite Sengstack in Bowen's courtroom.

"I did attend a fund-raiser for Mr. Sengstak," Bowen wrote Murphy on May 16. "I asked an invocation at the request of . . . the master of ceremonies. I also spoke for three to five minutes on my opinion of Mr. Sengstack . . . . "

In his letter, Bowen said he had misread materials from the court administrative office about his "new status" as a retired judge. He said he mistakenly thought that political activity was no longer prohibited for him.

"Because of this, it did not occur to me that what I did was any transgression of the rules. I would never have done it if I had thought so."

Apologizing for "the difficulty my misunderstanding has caused," Bowen said that, on rereading the material, "I agree that the rule does cover my situation. If you continue to designate me to sit, I will abide by it . . . . "

Pelagatti, who divides his time between courthouses in Prince George's and Calvert counties, said he thinks that Bowen could still rule fairly on cases pitting him against Sengstack.

"I don't have any problem with him sitting on any of the cases," Pelagatti said. "He'd still be looking at it objectively, on the law and the facts."

Prosecutor Sengstack said he had invited Bowen to the fund-raiser "as a courtesy," adding, "I do not think he would have been biased" on his cases. "Judge Bowen, quite frankly, is above that type of thing."

But because of Bowen's actions, Murphy instructed him two weeks ago not to handle any cases until the appeals court considered the matter. "He's a very valuable asset to us in Southern Maryland," Murphy said yesterday. "He's a very honorable man, gruff and tough, but when he said he didn't know {he had acted improperly}, I take him at his word. We're going to bring him back."

Still unresolved is an inquiry by the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, headed by Court of Special Appeals Judge Theodore G. Bloom.

Bloom said the commission became involved after "I got a telephone call from a reporter and another reporter and another reporter from Calvert County. I didn't think they had that many reporters in Calvert County."