Maryland’s high court took the first step toward jumping into the legal fray surrounding a vacant Prince George’s County delegate seat Thursday by putting a hold on a lower court ruling that said the governor can make a new appointment.
The temporary stay issued by the Court of Appeals gives judges time to consider a request to take up the case, but doesn’t overturn the earlier ruling.
Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols ruled Wednesday that the District 24 seat once held by Tiffany T. Alston (D) of Mitchellville had been legally vacant since October, when Alston pleaded no contest to a charge of misusing campaign funds and was given a one-year suspended sentence on a separate charge of misusing General Assembly funds.
After Alston completed 300 hours of community service, a judge modified her one-year, suspended jail sentence to probation before judgment, effectively striking her conviction.
Alston argued that the modification of her sentence means the conviction was never made final, and that she was not immediately removed from office by act of law, as the state Constitution mandates.
But Nichols ruled that the modification of Alston’s sentence did not overturn or reverse her conviction, and that she had waived all rights to appeal as part of her plea.
Nichols also ruled that the county’s Democratic Central Committee had the right to withdraw its nominee to replace Alston, businessman and community activist Greg Hall, whose decades-old criminal record has become controversial.
Hall, a former drug dealer, was implicated in a 1992 shootout that left a teenage bystander dead, but was found not to have fired the fatal shot. He also has faced drug and handgun possession charges.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) had asked the committee to withdraw Hall’s nomination.
The 24-member committee said last month it was willing to do so, but Hall had already sued to block that from happening.
Both Hall and Alston have appealed Nichols’ decision. Thursday’s high court order was in response to Hall’s motion, according to his lawyer, Walter Green.
The court set a deadline of Wednesday for other parties to file a response, Green said.
The attorney general’s office, which is representing O’Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis in the matter, is preparing its response, a spokesman said.
Central committee Chairman Terry Speigner was Hall’s chief rival for Alston’s seat, losing 12-10 in a November vote. He says he no longer is interested in the seat, but that the committee will probably offer another suggestion to the governor.
The committee had planned to meet Saturday to withdraw Hall’s name, but now plans to wait until the Court of Appeals makes a decision, Speigner said.
Several candidates who pursued the seat last month — including former Fairmount Heights Councilwoman Nancy Dixon-Saxon, lawyer Clayton Aarons and nurse Sherry Strother — have expressed interest in the position, Speigner said.
Phillip Raines, another resident who sought the appointment in November, also said he’d still like to be considered.
Former Del. Darren M. Swain, who represented District 24 from 1999 to 2003, said he had been approached as a possible candidate, and that he would gladly serve again if asked.
Another rumored contender is Prince George’s Orphans’ Court Judge Vicky L. Ivory-Orem, according to sources in the county. Orem could not immediately be reached for comment.
“Several people have expressed an interest and would all be very good,” said Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D-Dist. 24) of Mitchellville. “I just want someone that would represent the district with honor and integrity.”
Howard said she regretted the negative publicity the county has received during the episode, calling it a “bad seed.”
But she spoke highly of both Hall and Alston.
Alston “might run again. She had a lot of constituent support,” Howard said.
While the District 24 battle raged on this week, the governor approved a less-controversial appointment, naming Alonzo Washington of Hyattsville to fill the District 22 delegate seat vacated by Justin Ross (D), who retired last month. The central committee overwhelmingly favored Washington’s nomination.
“I look forward to working with Alonzo as we continue to advance policies and programs which will benefit the interests of citizens in every corner of our State,” O’Malley said in a statement.