The names of three assistant state's attorneys for Harford County are among four lawyers and a district court judge who have been recommended to Gov. Martin O'Malley for appointment to the vacancy on the Harford County Circuit.
But the county's chief prosecutor, Joseph Cassilly, who also applied for the judgeship, did not make the final cut when the Judicial Nominating Commission for District 4-Harford County sent its five nominees to O'Malley Thursday.
There are five circuit court judgeships in Harford County. The vacancy resulted from the retirement earlier this year of Judge Thomas E. Marshall.
The five nominees from the 11 who applied for the judgeship are Melba Elizabeth Bowen, District Judge Victor Kuras Butanis, Melissa Lazarich Lambert, Kerwin Anthony Miller Sr. and Diane Adkins Tobin.
Bowen, Lambert and Tobin all work for Cassilly in the state's attorney's office; in fact, all three have worked for Cassilly for a number of years. Cassilly is the longest serving county state's attorney in Maryland. He was elected to his eighth consecutive four-year term last November.
The committee's decision to pass over Cassilly in its nominations immediately raised many eyebrows in local legal and political circles, although Cassilly is a Republican and the governor is a Democrat, as are most of the members of the nominating panel, since they also are chosen by the governor.
Still, several people in politics and the Harford legal community said they found it difficult to understand why Cassilly's name wasn't at least sent to the governor.
Cassilly has been Harford's chief prosecutor since 1982, and based on election results alone, he's been one of the most popular officeholders in Harford County in the last 25 years. He's received a number of state and national honors for his work and has served as president of the National District Attorneys Association.
Last month, Cassilly was honored by the Disabled American Veterans as its Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year for 2011. An ex-Army Ranger, Cassilly broke his neck in a fall from a helicopter while serving in combat in Vietnam. He cannot walk and uses a wheelchair and has limited use of his arms and hands.
Shortly after he was re-elected this fall, Cassilly said this latest term would be his last and he would be looking for something else to do. He's been with the state's attorney's office, first as a deputy and then as the head of the office, since the days when it consisted of two lawyers. Today he has 28 lawyers working for him.
Among the trio of Cassilly's assistants who were nominated, Tobin is the most visible. She is one of two assistants who work in the Child Advocacy Center, which investigates and prosecutes crimes involving child abuse, sexual molestation and exploitation. This has been a major focus of Cassilly's administration in the state's attorney's office.
Bowen supervises six lawyers who work in the state's attorney's district court division. Lambert is one of 11 assistants assigned to the circuit court division.
H. Scott Lewis, one of Cassilly's two deputies, also was among the 11 who applied for the judgeship and, like his boss, was passed over by the nominating commission.
Miller, a resident of Belcamp, is the deputy state's attorney in neighboring Cecil County. He's also listed as chief homicide prosecutor on the office's website. He's also been working for a new boss for the past 10 months — Cecil State's Attorney Ellis Rollins III, who was swept into office last November on a Republican tide that captured all the local offices in the county.
Several sources said Miller came highly recommended from judges in Cecil County, among others.
Butanis was appointed to the district court in 1996 by then-governor Parris Glendening. He became the local court's chief administrative judge in 1999 and served in that capacity until 2010 when Maryland District Court Chief Judge Ben Clyburn demoted him. The reasons for the demotion have never been made public. Prior to becoming a judge, Butanis also served as the chief legal counsel to Harford County government.
If Butanis were selected for the judicial vacancy, it would create a vacancy for the governor to fill on Harford's District Court.
Under a decades old practice, the governor is bound by executive order to make his circuit court appointment from among the five people submitted by the nominating commission.
The governor may, however, request that the commission "reconvene for further deliberations, or re-advertise a vacancy to new applicants." That gives him an out and a way to signify to the commission he wants other choices, a practice that has been used on occasion over the years.
Whomever O'Malley chooses, if the appointment is made by January, the new judge will stand for election to a full 15-year term in the 2012 primary and general elections. Any lawyer who resides in Harford County can run against the sitting judge, and that's likely to be a consideration in O'Malley's decision making process with Cassilly potentially looming as an opponent.
Since becoming governor in 2007, O'Malley has made two judicial appointments in Harford County. He appointed then-district judge Angela Eaves to the circuit court in late 2007 and then appointed Susan Hazlett to the district court judgeship vacated by Eaves.
Eaves is the first woman and first African-American circuit court judge in Harford County history. Among the current nominees, there is one African-American, Miller.
Assuming O'Malley makes his selection from among the five people nominated by the commission, the four who don't get the judgeship this time will automatically remain under consideration as finalists for two years.
That requirement may be significant in this instance because Harford Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Feb. 9, 2013, seven months before the two-year period expires.