The only contested judicial general election in Maryland has turned nasty in its waning days.
A month-old political action committee — Citizens for the Election of Qualified Judges — has been distributing flyers to voters, accusing Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge candidate Alison L. Asti of “taking advantage of Maryland taxpayers” when she worked for the Maryland Stadium Authority, a claim her attorney calls defamatory.
Asti’s opponents, sitting judges Ronald H. Jarashow and Laura S. Kiessling, are not members of the group and neither reviewed nor approved the flyers, said attorney T. Joseph Touhey, the PAC’s treasurer.
The judges could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Asti is a member of The Daily Record’s Editorial Advisory Board. She has abstained from participating on the board for the duration of her campaign.
Through her attorney Arthur M. Frank, a Baltimore solo practitioner, Asti had urged the group to cease and desist distributing the flyers or run the risk of being sued for defamation.
But Touhey, amid the threat of litigation, defended the flyer’s distribution Tuesday.
“I stand by it 100 percent,” said Touhey, a solo practitioner in Glen Burnie. Organizations “have a right to discuss the qualifications of the party who seeks to be elected.”
Touhey said the group, which is a registered PAC with the state Board of Elections, consists of Anne Arundel trial attorneys who believe Asti, having never tried a case in a courtroom, is unqualified to be a judge. The flyers state — in all capital letters — that Asti has “no courtroom experience.”
“If you have never tried a case in court, you have no business trying a case as a judge,” said Touhey, a veteran trial attorney. “It’s like taking a first-year medical student and letting him do brain surgery.”
Touhey said he has no personal animosity toward Asti, adding he “cannot recall” ever having met her.
“She can be a genius, but you can’t make up for that need for experience,” Touhey added. “She’s not running for queen of the Mayfair. This is for a circuit court judgeship.”
Jarashow and Kiessling both had trial experience before Gov. Martin O’Malley appointed them to the circuit court this year.
Jarashow, 61, was in private practice for 34 years before his appointment. Kiessling, 46, was a prosecutor in the Anne Arundel County state’s attorney’s office for nearly 20 years before getting the governor’s nod.
Asti, 56, rejected Touhey’s argument that a judge must have trial experience, saying that requirement is nowhere to be found in the state constitution.
“It’s only the trial lawyers who say you need to be a trial lawyer” to be a judge, said Asti, who served as Maryland State Bar Association president from 2007 to 2008.
Asti added that being a trial lawyer might, in fact, be a disadvantage for a judge because most courtroom attorneys specialize in either plaintiff or defense work.
“That makes it hard to be truly impartial,” Asti said. “A judge must be truly impartial.”
Asti also rejected the contention she has no courtroom experience, saying that as general counsel to the stadium authority she both authorized litigation and oversaw lawsuits brought by and against the agency.
“The trial lawyers reported to me. I supervised them,” Asti said. “I’ve certainly been in court many times to oversee their work.”
The controversial flyers also state that Asti “wasted millions of dollars in taxpayer money in uncollected rents, sweetheart deals and no-bid contracts” during her 13 years as executive director and general counsel of the stadium authority.
Touhey said the criticism is based on a February 2007 legislative audit that took the agency to task for its procurement process; $282,000 in severance payments; a $42,000 fee paid to a previous executive director without stipulating what he would do to earn the fee; and $1.7 million in uncollected rents. Asti agreed to resign from the authority in September 2007.
Of the audit, Asti said that the stadium authority’s response “makes it crystal clear” that the events audited occurred before she became executive director. She said Frank, her attorney, had made that point to the group in urging them not to distribute the flyers, but to no avail.
Touhey said the group has collected a total of about $50,000 in contributions from its approximately 50 members.
Another member of the group, Annapolis lawyer Paula J. Peters, also defended the flyer.
“I think it’s a really hard piece,” Peters said. “But I think it’s accurate.”
Peters, a family-law attorney, also said she is “extremely concerned” about Asti’s lack of trial experience.
“That really worries me for my clients,” added Peters, of the Law Offices of Paula J. Peters PA.
Frank said he and Asti will wait until after the election before deciding whether to bring a defamation suit.
But quite apart from any legal argument, the most eloquent statement would come from the voters if Asti is elected, he said.
“If Ms. Asti wins, I’m hoping her victory would show politicians generally that negative campaigning doesn’t work,” said Frank.