The biggest political fight in years is underway in Annapolis, and Jervis S. Finney -- the courtly yet controversial chief counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) -- is right in the middle of things.

As the governor's lawyer, Finney also has been acting as his chief defender since Democrats launched a review of whether Ehrlich fired state employees improperly. In a series of letters, written in the formal, long-winded style his intimates call "jervieze," he has been scolding Democrats who he thinks are misbehaving. Critics say he is stirring things up with his efforts to intimidate. Others say he is just exhibiting the loyalty he has shown throughout his long career.

"It's a little bit like having the Mad Hatter as a pen pal," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who recently received two long Finney letters, one accusing Frosh of waging "a relentless smear campaign against our governor."

"The letters are goofy," Frosh said.

After more than four decades in public life, after years of toiling as a lonely Republican in a Democrat-controlled state, Finney, 73, a former state senator and U.S. attorney, is happy to be at the side of the governor he encouraged from youth. Finney has known the governor since Ehrlich was a teenager starring on the football team at the exclusive Gilman School in Baltimore, where Finney's brother, Redmond, was headmaster.

"My loyalty -- legal, professional, governmental, personal, political, whatever -- is all out front, unabashed, unsurpassed," he said in a recent interview. "Well, number one, lawyers are supposed to represent their clients -- and he is my only client. Wait a minute, that's wrong. He is the number one client, with the members of the staff also being clients and members of the Ehrlich administration also essentially being clients."

Jervis Spencer Finney, the product of a fine old Baltimore family, talks in long, musing paragraphs and walks with a youthful bounce. He is a former senior doubles champion in squash and a former paratrooper, pointing to the wings on his lapel. In his dark Brooks Brothers suits, with his amiable manners and self-deprecating remarks, he belies the image of the governor's "pit bull," as some Democrats have called him.

"Jervis is old school," said his longtime assistant Stephanie Hopkins, who met him more than 30 years ago. "Old school is where you were raised a certain way, you have standards, you have ethics and you have a sense of respect and responsibility about yourself, and I don't feel a lot of that today. He is very straightforward and very set in some of his ways."

For years, Finney has been recognized as a "champion of legal ethics," according to a 2003 profile in the Maryland Bar Journal. As U.S. attorney in 1977, he oversaw the prosecution of then-Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) on political corruption charges. In 1997, some of the same Democrats who now are criticizing him agreed to hire him as special prosecutor during an ethics probe of a state senator. But, some of those Democrats say, Finney has strained relationships in recent months.

"I was looking forward to working with him again, but we wound up with a surprise party. . . . I wish this was the same Jervis Finney we used to know," said state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat. "I always felt like with him, he was above partisan politics. Maybe it's because they were out of office for so long."

Like Frosh, Hollinger is among the eight Democrats (and four Republicans) on the committee to probe allegations that Ehrlich fired some state employees for political reasons. Frosh and Hollinger have made public remarks critical of the Ehrlich administration, and Finney says he dispatched a letter to each, questioning their impartiality to serve on the committee.

Finney's supporters say he has always been a strict adherent to the letter of the law, writing long, complicated missives explaining his point of view. While he has taken his job to new heights of visibility -- previous chief counsels kept a relatively low profile -- they say he is not after personal glory.

"I know the governor relies on him, and he made a wise choice," said J. Glenn Beall (R), a former U.S. senator from Maryland. "Jervis is the kind of guy who will look over other people's shoulders and do things that are right and that are a credit to the governor. I think he's relishing the role -- he's as busy as can be."

In the cloistered world of Maryland State House politics, however, things have gotten increasingly fractious since the advent of Ehrlich, the first Republican governor in 30 years. Some say Democrats, who still dominate both chambers of the state legislature, are chafing at having to share power at last. But some Democrats counter that Finney has overstepped his bounds in defending his client, cranking up the power struggle.

This year, Ehrlich fired Joseph Steffen, a longtime aide who had been caught spreading rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's alleged infidelity. O'Malley, a Democrat, is expected to challenge Ehrlich's bid for reelection next year.

Steffen had been chatting about the matter on a politics Web site with a mysterious visitor using the name MD4BUSH, who encouraged him to talk about how the rumors gained such traction. Finney, who now seems to see MD4BUSH as the chief culprit rather than Steffen, has been determined to learn the identity of this "Watergate-style dirty trickster" ever since.

The son and grandson of prominent Baltimore surgeons, Finney followed the expected track for blue-blood Baltimore: the Gilman School, Princeton University, Harvard Law School. A playing field at Princeton is named for the Finney family, and on Finney's office wall are photographs of the family island in Nova Scotia, Little Fish Island, that his grandfather purchased 98 years ago.

"Jervis goes with the snooty-dooties," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), a former governor who likes Finney. "He would fit in fine with them -- they wouldn't let a bum like me in. But he doesn't put on airs. He's a high-class individual, let me put it that way. He's a good man. I think you either like him or you don't."

Younger lawyers found Finney ever helpful, while sometimes feeling they needed a translation. "He doesn't always get right to the point," said Baltimore lawyer Gerard Martin, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney under Finney. "My friends used to joke with me, 'I had a conversation with Jervy -- can you tell me what he said?' "

One young lawyer who knew the value of Finney's friendship was Ehrlich. He was hired at Ober Kaler, the prestigious Baltimore firm where Finney was a partner, and in 1986, sought out Finney's blessing when he decided to run for the state House of Delegates -- a job that would curtail his billing time severely. Finney went to bat for him with the firm.

When Ehrlich named Finney chief counsel in 2003, Finney and his wife, Patricia, moved to the Annapolis area to be closer to the job; they have two grown sons.

Finney has had run-ins not just with legislators but with the state's longtime attorney general, also with a subtext of politics.

J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat who has been attorney general for 20 years, said that Finney, unlike his predecessors, has been "a prolific writer," second-guessing Curran's office on "a lot of subjects." He added that Finney also has strained relations by accusing him of taking part in political activities for O'Malley, Curran's son-in-law.

Finney says he will not give up his defense of a governor and an administration he believes in, no matter the criticism. "What Governor Ehrlich has sought is overall fairness on both sides," he said. "I have supported him in every one of his endeavors."

Jervis S. Finney, chief counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has been, in a series of letters, scolding Democrats who launched a review of whether Ehrlich fired state employees improperly.