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February 24, 2006

Kelly’s Dream Deferred

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On February 16, it became official that a longstanding friend of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., conservative Western Maryland Democratic Del. Kevin Kelly, would not have his name submitted to fill the judicial vacancy of the District Court of Maryland for Allegany County.

In the political arena where disappointment is frequently greeted by silence and friends who stare at the floor, folks often don’t heed what Martin Luther King once said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Many Tentacle readers are aware of the hard work of Delegate Kelly and were disappointed to learn that he was not to be referred to in the future as Judge Kelly.

As a newly minted elected municipal official in the late 1990s, I have fond memories of those folks who were friendly and helpful as I tried to unravel the byzantine rituals of the Maryland General Assembly. Perhaps, first among equals in that helpful group was Delegate Kelly.

Most members of the Frederick and Carroll County delegations were very supportive.

Several of the other names that quickly come to mind when I think of friendly folks who went out of their way to lend a hand were: Del. Brian R. Moe (D., Anne Arundel/PG); Del. Bennett Bozman (D., Wicomico/Worcester); Del. Norman H. Conway (D., Wicomico/Worcester); Sen. Donald F. Munson (R., Washington); then-Del. Charles McClenahan (R., Somerset, Wicomico & Worchester); and Judge Paul G. Goetzke, then Annapolis city attorney.

Always quick with a smile and a joke, Delegate Kelly went out of his way on several occasions to help when I barely knew the difference between the House Environmental Matters and Economic Matters Committees.

Many had lost track of this current sideshow, since the judicial vacancy for the District Court of Maryland for Allegany County has been unfilled since the fall of 2004. It was announced last Friday that Delegate Kelly was passed over for H. Jack Price, Jr., the city solicitor for the mayor and city council of Cumberland since 1990.

Chosen by Governor Ehrlich, Mr. Price is certain to be eminently qualified as the governor’s reputation for appointing qualified attorneys to the bench has been refreshing as opposed to his predecessor, who became renown for politicizing the bench with gerrymandered selections that were all too frequently challenged successfully in subsequent elections.

Fortunately, Tom Dennison wrote an article in The Gazette on February 17, which explained the “random variables” surrounding what many of us had otherwise accepted as a foregone conclusion that Delegate Kelly would be selected.

In a widely circulated and appreciated article, Mr. Dennison wrote: “Kelly’s dream died after a private two-hour meeting with Ehrlich at Government House on Tuesday night (Feb.14.). Virtually everyone involved agreed that, in the end, Ehrlich (R) just did not believe that Kelly would be easily confirmed in the Senate because of the governor’s increasingly poisonous relationship with President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.”

“Kelly said that he and the governor met for more than two hours and that he came away with an understanding that politics — not merits — drove the process,” reported Mr. Dennison.

It was a star-crossed appointment from the very beginning.

Whispers in the hallways confirm that Delegate Kelly would have had a difficult time being confirmed – and for all the wrong reasons.

It is well known that Delegate Kelly and Governor Ehrlich have been friends since they served together on the House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee in the 1980s. Many Democrats knew it would be important to Governor Ehrlich to have his friend confirmed and they were licking their chops to give the governor another disappointment.

An undated notation on the Web site of Progressive Maryland reads: “Gov. Ehrlich has been called on his cronyism once again, this time in Allegany County. His nominee for Allegany’s District Court bench, friend and former colleague Del. Kevin Kelly, has been judged unfit for the job and summarily rejected by a judicial nominating commission made up of the governor's own appointees.”

It is true “the local judicial nominating panel did not forward his name to the governor for consideration,” wrote Mr. Dennison.

Why? Most impartial arbiters of such matters, clearly feel that Delegate Kelly processes a first rate legal mind and would be perfect for the bench.

Nevertheless, it is also understood that Western Maryland Republicans “feel the judgeship should not go to a Democrat. Since the District Court system was created in 1970, there has never been a Republican judge in Allegany, and GOP leaders appear to want to make history,” wrote David Nitkin in The (Baltimore) Sun on August 28, 2005.

Additionally, Mr. Nitkin reported, “State Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat who served with Kelly on the House Judiciary Committee for several years, offered sharper criticism. ‘I don't think he ever approached issues of women or domestic violence objectively,’ Grosfeld said. ‘I would have very grave concerns with Del. Kevin Kelly serving on the District or Circuit Court bench because of his attitude I have seen in relation to women's issues, domestic-violence issues and family-law issues…’”

Having had the opportunity to grow up with several currently sitting judges or to work with colleagues who were later appointed to the bench, being denied the opportunity to be a judge must be quite a disappointment.

A wise person once said “success is rarely final, failure is rarely fatal. It’s courage that counts.” By all accounts, Delegate Kelly is taking it well – if not courageously. But it had to hurt.

Instead of being the recipient of Delegate Kelly’s friendly nature, perhaps folks who care ought to go out of their way to pat Delegate Kelly on the back and greet him with smile and a joke. This is a time for friends to be vocal.

Working in the direction of making the Maryland General Assembly a little more human isn’t going to hurt anyone and it may help remind some folks that they are there to serve the citizens of Maryland rather than feed their petty egos and perform accomplishments of kindergarten heights.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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