ANNAPOLIS – Dan Sparaco will remain a candidate for the Baltimore City Council.
The Court of Appeals said two of the independent candidate’s opponents for the open seat waited too long before filing their court challenge to his being placed on the ballot. The high court did not elaborate in its one-page order issued within hours of hearing the challenge Tuesday morning.
The court said it will issue an opinion at a later date.
The two opponents, Green Party candidate Ian Schlakman and Frank Richardson, also an independent, had told the court through counsel that Sparaco’s name should be stricken from the ballot because he failed to file a declaration of intent to run by a Feb. 3 deadline.
The State Board of Elections, in defense of including Sparaco’s name, said he met the deadline for independent candidates, which the board said was not Feb. 3 but the first Monday in August, which fell on Aug. 1.
The three men are vying for the District 12 seat being vacated by Carl Stokes, who ran for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore mayor this year but lost to state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.
A fourth candidate, Democrat Robert Stokes Sr., was not a party to the high-court case. He is not related to Carl Stokes.
The board, represented by the attorney general’s office, argued at the Court of Appeals on Tuesday that the legal challenge should be dismissed because Schlakman and Richardson failed to meet the deadline for objecting in court to Sparaco’s candidacy.
That statutory deadline comes 10 days after an opponent knew or should have known the challenger had entered the race, said Assistant Maryland Attorney General Julia Doyle Bernhardt. That clock would have started at the latest on Aug. 2, when the board put Sparaco’s name on the ballot, and ended Aug. 12, she added.
Schlakman and Richardson did not file their initial challenge, in federal court, until Aug. 25, Bernhardt said in urging the high court to dismiss their challenge.
But H. Mark Stichel, representing Schlakman and Richardson, said the challengers have neither the political savvy nor a team of campaign aides and thus did not discover until Aug. 15 that Sparaco was on the ballot. Therefore, their federal-court challenge was filed in time, added Stichel, of Gohn Hankey Stichel & Berlage LLP in Baltimore.
Election law questions
Bernhardt responded that an individual running for office, regardless of political experience or assistance, is “charged with the knowledge of who the candidates are” and cannot “put his head in the sand” and avoid seeing who the opponents are until days before filing a court challenge.
Bernhardt’s argument seemed to have scored with Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, who asked Stichel to defend his position that the court challenge was raised in time.
During the hour-long high-court session, the judges peppered the attorneys for clarification regarding Maryland election law, which clearly sets a deadline major party candidates to file but leaves unclear, based on questions from the bench, as to whether independent candidates have the same date for declaring their intention to run.
Bernhardt said Feb. 3 could not be the deadline for independent candidates, as that date would be unconstitutionally too soon in light of federal court decisions that found March deadlines to infringe on the First Amendment rights of independents. She also cited an advisory letter from Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh this past summer that stated the deadline for independent candidates is the first Monday in August.
Stichel responded that an early deadline for a mere declaration of intent to run is not unconstitutional – and is, in fact, the deadline for independent candidates, Frosh’s letter notwithstanding.
U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III dismissed Schlakman and Richardson’s federal case Sept. 20, noting that the challengers’ attorney, Baltimore solo practitioner Susan L. Burke, was not a member of the federal court’s bar.
Schlakman and Richardson filed suit Sept. 19 in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, arguing that Sparaco had missed the deadline. Judge Paul F. Harris issued a temporary restraining order Sept. 22, taking Sparaco’s name off the ballot. But the Court of Appeals stayed the order the following day, pending its decision on the board’s appeal.
The case is Linda H. Lamone et al. v. Ian Schlakman et al., No. 50, September Term 2016.