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Urban Rhythms


By Wiley Hall III | Posted 8/21/2002

When state lawmakers expelled Sen. Larry Young from the General Assembly in 1998, they acted with a frenzied, come-to-Jesus hysteria that was kind of frightening for a sensitive soul such as myself to behold.

They acted fast. They acted in secret. And they acted with zero tolerance. Lawmakers, panting heavily and with their hair askew, claimed that anything short of speed and secrecy--and any hint of mercy--would destroy public confidence in the integrity of the legislature. And so, Young became the first state senator expelled in Maryland's 200-year history, although he later was acquitted of all criminal charges in the comparatively calm and reasoned environment of a court of law. Today the former state senator bedevils authority as a radio talk-show host, only occasionally revealing his bitterness over what my grandpappy would have described as a public lynching.

In light of their treatment of Young, I have always wondered how lawmakers would respond when something really egregious came along. Would lawmakers feel compelled by the precedent set with Young to act swiftly, secretly, and mercilessly, I wondered? Or would they insult our intelligence by making specious excuses?

Well, now we know. They have just insulted our intelligence. The legislature's ethics committee has reprimanded Senate President Thomas "Mike" Miller after finding that he "abused his position" by calling two judges on the state Court of Appeals while the court was considering legal challenges to the governor's legislative redistricting plan.

Miller appears to have been stung by the rebuke, insisting, to The Washington Post, that he "didn't do anything illegal, unethical, or immoral." Still, it is worth noting that a written reprimand, while embarrassing, actually is pretty soft treatment when measured against the Larry Young standard. In fact, Miller escaped sanctions of any kind. Even a good talking-to or a slap on the wrist would have been tougher.

Yet I would argue that the finding that Miller "abused his position" describes behavior that's just about as outrageous and egregious as anything I've heard of from Annapolis.

Here's what we know: Early this year, Gov. Parris Glendening released his redistricting map, a map that would redefine political boundaries for the next decade. The governor's map had been carefully constructed by Miller, Glendening, and other Democratic leaders to protect their friends and punish their enemies. But critics complained that party leaders went too far and promptly challenged the map in court. For example, under the governor's plan, Miller's new district combined parts of Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, and Prince George's counties in an apparent attempt to maintain a favorable racial balance. Miller is white, while the black population in Prince George's County had grown rapidly since the last census.

In May, the court revealed that some of its members had received inappropriate calls and letters from six Democratic lawmakers: Miller; Sen. Ulysses Currie (Prince George's County), who presides over a subcommittee that oversees the court's budget; Sen. Clarence Blount (Baltimore City); Del. Ruth Kirk (Baltimore City); Sen. Ida Ruben (Montgomery County); and Sen. Robert Neall (Anne Arundel County). Those lawmakers would later tell the ethics committee that their inquiries had been innocent or inadvertent. But it is worth noting that the court felt otherwise last spring. It scolded the politicians for trying to discuss a pending case in violation of the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct and assured attorneys on both sides that they had not been influenced by the contacts and had cut off the conversations as soon as it became apparent that the topic was redistricting.

A month later, the court invalidated the governor's map and issued a new plan with newly drawn districts that has forced incumbents throughout the state to fight for their seats.

During the Aug. 9 ethics committee hearing, Sen. Ruben acknowledged that she had contacted the court at Miller's request. The others insisted that the Senate president had not asked them to do anything wrong.

However, the court reprimanded Miller in view of his "knowledge of the rules regarding ex-parte communications and his inherent power as Senate President." It also found that the "public perception of undue influence was exacerbated by Senator Miller's disrespectful demeanor toward the judges," referring to a shouting match the senator had over the pending decision.

Sen. Currie received a letter of admonition for a 10-minute conversation he had with Chief Judge Robert Bell. Contacts by the other lawmakers were deemed inadvertent infractions.

Common sense tells me that experienced lawmakers don't suddenly get it into their heads to contact the august members of the state's highest court to discuss a pending case. Appearances suggest that Miller orchestrated an attempt to influence, if not intimidate, the court. But the legislators, suspecting they were doing wrong, apparently didn't try very hard, and the judges, knowing damn well it was wrong, refused to listen.

But this doesn't let Miller off the hook. Even the appearance of an attempt to influence a court ruling by a highly placed public official is an egregious violation of the public trust. If Larry Young's behavior merited expulsion from the Senate, Mike Miller's behavior ought to have gotten him expelled from the sovereign State of Maryland.

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