Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), struggling to avoid appointing a Prince George’s man with a criminal history to a delegate seat, is insisting that the state constitution does not compel him to put Greg Hall, above, in the post. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

It could come down to the definitions of a few short words: “shall” and “duty.”

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), struggling to avoid appointing a Prince George’s man with a criminal history to a delegate seat, is insisting that the state constitution does not compel him to put Greg Hall in the post vacated by Del. Tiffany Alston, who faced ethics problems of her own.

But Hall sees it differently. In court documents filed in anticipation of a Tuesday court hearing, Hall said the governor has no choice in the matter, given that the Maryland constitution says he “shall” appoint the choice of the local party’s central committee, and has a “duty” to do so. And that choice until a week ago was indisputably Hall.

The man who will attempt to unravel the controversy, which has roiled county politicians and put the politically ambitious O’Malley in an uncomfortable position, is Prince George’s Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr., himself no stranger to Maryland politics.

Nichols, a longtime Democratic activist, is chairman of the board of the troubled Dimensions Healthcare System, presiding over a membership that includes several elected officials. He also is close to County Executive Rushern L. Baker (D), who asked Nichols to swear him in two years ago.

When Nichols gavels open the hearing Tuesday in Upper Marlboro, he will need to sort out what the governor’s role is and the significance of the actions of the county’s Democratic Central Committee, whose members are all political appointees aligned with the county’s state senators. The committee picked Hall, 42, in a 12 to 10 vote on Nov. 2, rejecting their own chairman, Terry Speigner.

While Hall has said he never hid his past, which includes a misdemeanor gun charge stemming from the shooting death of a 13-year-old boy, an honors student who was killed in a gunbattle. It was later determined that Hall did not fire the fatal shot.

O’Malley grew nervous about the selection and for several days weighed possible options. On Nov. 15 he wrote to the 24-member Democratic Central Committee and asked members to rescind Hall’s nomination until Attorney General Douglas Gansler (D) could assess whether Alston’s seat was vacant. Gansler quickly answered back that it was, echoing an earlier opinion from Assistant Attorney General Dan Friedman.

The central committee then met again, but refused to follow the governor’s request that it void the Hall selection. O’Malley spoke by phone with Speigner, the committee chairman and unsuccessful candidate for the seat. A short time later, Speigner called an emergency meeting of the committee on Nov. 26 and the members took a straw vote to rescind the nomination. By that time, Alston and Hall had filed court challenges in the case. Alston, a first-term legislator, insisted that she should be reinstated after being removed from office in October after she was sentenced on a misconduct charge for stealing $800 from the General Assembly to pay an employee of her law firm.

An Anne Arundel County judge later changed the conviction to probation before judgement, essentially striking the conviction and Alston filed a lawsuit to try to get her job back.

Hall said he was rightfully selected for the seat and the central committee could not rescind that selection.

Nichols heard their challenges a a few hours before the committee vote but deferred a more detailed hearing until Tuesday. In the meantime, he said the central committee could take a vote on the proposed revocation of Hall’s nomination, but that would not be binding until he rules on the legal issues.

That ruling could come as soon as Tuesday, after the hearing, which is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. But no matter what Nichols decides, it is likely that the losing side will appeal. All involved in the case have signaled that they will take their claims to the highest court willing to consider them.