Maryland still provides for the election of Circuit Court judges, who are appointed by the Governor after vetting by Judicial Nominating Commissions and must then stand for election. If an attorney decides to challenge a “sitting judge” in a contested election, this results in political campaigning. Since lawyers and judges are subject to rules of professional conduct, candidates must be careful not to run afoul of their ethical rules, as illustrated by a case last month from Maryland’s Court of Appeals called Attorney Grievance Commission v. Stanalonis.
The majority opinion, from a five Judge majority, indicates that there was a contested primary election in St. Mary’s County in which Stanalonis, an experienced prosecutor, sought to challenge a newly appointed sitting Judge. The primary election was only two months after the Judge was sworn in. Stanalonis’ election campaign sent out flyers to prospective voters, one of which identified the Judge as opposing “registration of convicted sexual predators.” The candidates won their respective Republican and Democratic primaries, and the sitting Judge then won the general election.
The Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission charged Stanalonis with violating Maryland Rule of Professional Conduct 8.2 (a) prohibiting false statements as to the qualifications of a judge or candidate for such office, and rules regarding misconduct involving misrepresentation or prejudicial to the administration of justice. Pursuant to Maryland Rules a judge was appointed to hear the charges, who found that two of the statements alleged did not violate the Rules but the third did, although there was a demonstrable basis for the statement. Stanalonis appealed the findings, and the majority of the Court of Appeals agreed with him and dismissed the charges.
The majority found that there was not clear and convincing evidence to show that Stanalonis’ belief about the challenged statement was a “gross departure” from what a prudent lawyer would believe. It noted that the hearing judge did not find that the statement at issue was knowingly false, so that the charges of misrepresentation were not sufficiently proven.
This case does illustrate some of the professional risks involved for lawyers and judges having to campaign in contested elections.