The question that has hovered over Northwest Baltimore’s chaotic political landscape since disgraced former senator Nathaniel T. Oaks resigned his 41st District seat has finally been answered:
Oaks’ name will remain on the June 26 primary ballot, even though he pleaded guilty to two felonies, canceled his voter registration and supported efforts to have his name stricken.
By a 5-2 vote, the Maryland Court of Appeals yesterday dismissed the lawsuit filed in Anne Arundel County by three 41st District registered voters against the state Board of Elections.
The court rejected their argument that Oaks’ name should be stricken from the ballot because it would confuse voters. (He pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in March and is scheduled for sentencing this summer.)
Instead, they sided with state election officials who have maintained that it would be too disruptive and expensive to take Oaks’ name off the ballot at this point.
The case was sent back to Anne Arundel County “with direction that the court dismiss the complaint,” wrote Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.
In her one-page order, Barbera promised the rationale would be forthcoming at a later date (“reasons to be stated in a later opinion,” she wrote).
The delay frustrated Christopher Ervin, one of the plaintiffs, who said he was eager to see “the opinions both affirming and dissenting.”
To Ervin, the split vote signaled there was little clear precedent for the decision under Maryland law.
“In absence of that precedent, how could they not rule in a spirit of fairness and justice,” he said in a statement to The Brew.
“There is a clear constitutional issue, not [in regard] to Nat Oaks, but to the right of The People to have clear and fair choice of ELIGIBLE candidates.”
Splitting the Vote
In Annapolis, the arguments yesterday hinged on the fine points of election law and and election logistics.
But in Baltimore, the focus was on a more pointed and political question – how the decision could affect the outcome of the primary.
Oaks’ name will be on the ballot as a Senate candidate along with two others – Senator Jill P. Carter and former City College teacher J.D. Merrill.
First serving in the legislature in 1983, Oaks is a familiar presence in the district. The longtime lawmaker’s name on the ballot could siphon off votes that would have gone to eligible candidates.
According to the conventional wisdom, Carter would stand to lose more of the votes that confused voters might cast for Oaks. That would give political newcomer Merrill – the son-in-law of former Gov. Martin O’Malley – a leg up.
Merrill has previously said he supported efforts to get Oaks’ name off the ballot.
“The choice in this race is between Jill P. Carter and J.D. Merrill. That choice should be made at the ballot box without confusion,” he said, in a statement as the case ping-ponged through the judicial system.
Carter did not dispute that the decision could cost her votes, but she said she could counteract Oaks’ presence on the ballot.
“While I disagree with the court’s decision, I am confident we will get the word out about my candidacy so that voters won’t be confused,” she said.
The attorney for Ervin and his co-plaintiffs, Nancy Lord Lewin and Elinor “Ellie” Mitchell, said he was “disappointed” in the Court’s decision.
(Oaks is a candidate for 41st District Democratic Central Committee as are 23 others, including Ervin and Mitchell.)
“I hope that the media coverage of the case will help to inform voters that a vote for Mr. Oaks is a wasted vote, even in his name remains on the ballot,” H. Mark Stichel told The Brew.
“I also would hope that this case would highlight to the General Assembly an issue that cries out for a legislative solution,” he said.