Judge Keeps Maryland Commissioners in Office

     ANNAPOLS, Md. – Calling it a “huge violation” of the separation of powers, a judge temporarily blocked a law Monday that targeted five commissioners appointed by Maryland’s Republican governor.
     Gov. Larry Hogan relies on the Anne Arundel County School Board Nominating Commission to propose nominees for vacancies on the county’s board of education. This past March, lawmakers voted to expand the commission from 11 members to 13. All five commissioners whom Gov. Larry Hogan appointed in June 2015 would be out.
     The commission’s current layout consists of five members appointed by the governor to four-year terms. Interest groups in the county round out the commission’s other six members.
     Though Hogan vetoed the law on April 5, calling it a violation of the Maryland Constitution, the Maryland House overrode the veto on April 7, and the Maryland Senate did the same one day later.
     Four of the five commissioners whom the law would have removed filed suit on May 6, claiming the General Assembly overstepped its role in passing the politically motivated bill. They demanded a temporary injunction against the law before it takes effect on June 1.
     “By removing only the gubernatorial appointees from the Commission, the bill is an attempt by the legislature to override the established public policy of Maryland, as set forth in Article II [section] 15 of the Maryland Constitution, that only the Governor may remove civil officers once they have been appointed to a civil office for a term of years,” the commissioners claimed in the complaint.
     Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge William Mulford agreed with the removed commissioners Monday afternoon, despite the state’s arguments that the law was more than just an attempt to remove political opponents from the school board.
     “I just can’t get around the fact that it is just the five gubernatorial appointees,” Mulford said at the end of a hearing on the temporary injunction.
     At the hearing today, the commissioners’ attorney, Sky Woodward, urged the court to consider how the Maryland Court of Appeals decided Schisler v. Maryland in 2005, a ruling that said the Senate overstepped its bounds by removing members of the State of Maryland Public Works Commission.
     Woodward also argued that removing the commissioners prematurely in a four-year term would amount to “irreparable harm.”
     “This bill is already hanging over their heads and causing harm and it hasn’t even taken effect yet,” Woodward said.
     Julia Bernhardt, deputy chief of the Civil Litigation Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, argued that the Legislature acted within its authority by changing the composition of the commission by adding more representatives of interest groups to the panel.
     The bill at issue in Schisler, on the other hand, was designed expressly to remove the governor’s appointees, Bernhardt said.
     “It’s a superficial similarity with Schisler,” Bernhardt said at the hearing.
     But Mulford disagreed with Bernhardt’s comparison of the two cases and made his disagreement clear from the moment Bernhardt stood up to argue her case.
     Before Bernhardt was able to start her arguments, Mulford told her they might have to disagree on the similarities between the Schisler and the nominating commission’s case.
     “The similarities are just striking,” Mulford told her.
     To try to sway him, Bernhardt told Mulford the General Assembly permanently changed the nominating commission with the law, moving toward a “wholly local” system rather than one with influence from the governor.
     This would allow the legislature to remove members from the organization without stepping into the governor’s role, Bernhardt said.
     But none of her arguments moved Mulford from his original position, which led to him granting the temporary injunction for all five members of the board removed by the law.
     “I just can’t see any public interest in allowing a law that may be unconstitutional to take effect,” Mulford said, repeating nearly word-for-word a line Woodward used earlier in the hearing.

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