Friday, February 3, 2023
A remarkable oral argument yesterday before the Maryland Supreme Court involves a matter in which Bar Counsel opened an investigation of a judicial candidate who was challenging incumbent judges 59 minutes after receiving information from the campaign manager of those judges.
While the principal allegations involve statements made by the Respondent in her effort to unseat sitting judges, Bar Counsel also filed, pursued and prevailed before the Circuit Court on charges relating to her 1999 application for admission to the New York Bar.
There is sharp questioning - particularly but not exclusively from Justice Watts - suggesting concern that Bar Counsel may have engaged in a conflict of interest by inserting herself in an ongoing judicial election for the benefit of the incumbent candidates.
The viewer is free to judge whether there were satisfactory answers to these questions.
Respondent's counsel also suggested that inaccurate/untrue statements made by or on behalf of the incumbents went uninvestigated and unpunished.
In a 2005 law review article, Professor James Moliterno warned about the use of bar sanctions as a political tool of the powerful and entrenched establishment to punish those who take on such interests.
The court dismissed similar charges in a 2015 decision
This case arose out of a hotly-contested primary election campaign for a position on the Circuit Court for St. Mary's County. An experienced prosecutor in the County sought to unseat a newly-appointed judge who, during the course of his career, had represented defendants in criminal cases in the County. As in many election campaigns, each candidate touted, with some exaggeration, his own experience and credentials. And each candidate disparaged, in various ways and without absolute accuracy, those of his opponent. The question before us is whether there is clear and convincing evidence that a statement in the challenger's campaign flyer was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity and therefore violated the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct (“MLRPC”).
The Attorney Grievance Commission (“Commission”) charged Respondent Joseph M. Stanalonis with violating MLRPC 8.2(a) (false statement as to qualification or integrity of a judge, public legal officer, or candidate for such office), MLRPC 8.4(c) (misconduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation), and MLRPC 8.4(d) (misconduct prejudicial to the administration of justice) by virtue of three statements about his opponent in a campaign flyer circulated on his behalf. Pursuant to Maryland Rule 16–752(a), this Court designated Judge Melanie M. Shaw Geter of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County1 to conduct a hearing concerning the alleged violations and to provide findings of fact and recommended conclusions of law.
Following a hearing at which Mr. Stanalonis was present and represented by counsel, the hearing judge issued findings of fact and recommended conclusions of law. The hearing judge concluded that two of the statements did not violate the MLRPC, but that the third statement violated all of the cited rules, although Mr. Stanalonis had a “demonstrable basis” for making that statement. Mr. Stanalonis excepted to the conclusion that he had violated the MLRPC. We sustain that exception, and, as a result, shall dismiss the charges.
Our earlier coverage of this case is linked here.
It will be interesting to see what the court does with this important case.
UPDATE: Maryland Bar Counsel announced her resignation on February 6, 2023. (Mike Frisch)