Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. denied Jones' request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the council from voting on two bills that would declare Jones' seat vacant. Harris wrote in a three-page opinion issued Wednesday afternoon — just hours after a closed-door hearing — that the request is premature because Jones is not set to begin serving his five-month sentence until Jan. 23.
Jones' attorney, Linda M. Schuett, called the ruling a "temporary setback" and said if the council votes to declare Jones' seat vacant, she'll refile the motion.
"The judge has made clear that he's not ruling on the merits," she said.
The County Council is set to vote Jan. 17 on two pieces of legislation that would allow it to declare Jones' seat vacant when he begins his jail sentence. Jones, a Severn Democrat, was sentenced to a five-month prison term for failing to file nearly three dozen tax returns over a six-year period.
Schuett filed a request for a temporary restraining order Wednesday morning.
"There is no law that allows the County Council to remove a sitting councilman based on a temporary absence from the district he represents," said Schuett following the closed-door hearing.
County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson, who has written a legal opinion advising the council that it can declare Jones' seat vacant, filed a motion to dismiss Jones' complaint and applauded the judge's ruling.
"The court correctly found that the plaintiff failed to show that an immediate and irreparable harm would occur if the relief was denied," Hodgson said. "That's a necessary element of this kind of a claim."
Jones, who did not attend the hearing, said in a phone interview Wednesday morning that he sought the restraining order to protect his constituents from a "politicized" process that would have the council select his replacement.
"I don't want the district to have to go through a process where the council will select someone," said Jones, who is also a defense attorney. "It would be highly politicized. … Not one of them would have an interest in what's best for the district."
Jones, who was elected to a second term in 2010, added that scores of constituents have urged him to try to retain his seat.
"I've been really very, very humbled with the amount of support — phone calls and everything else — that I've received. They want me to fight for them."
Councilman John J. Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican, one of two members who introduced legislation that would declare the seat vacant and begin the process of appointing a replacement, sharply criticized Jones.
"That's his way of saying he's thinking about himself," Grasso said. "If he cared about his constituents, he would have come clean before the election."
Grasso scoffed at the notion that the council's process for selecting a replacement would be fraught with politics.
"It's far better than having someone like him in there representing the people," said Grasso. "It's the lesser of two evils."