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Election law’s mandates kept Oaks’ name on ballot, high court says

Former Sen. Nat Oaks in 2017. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Former Sen. Nat Oaks in 2017. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The State Board of Elections remains bound by the requirements of Maryland’s election law even when the statutory demands prevent the removal of a candidate’s name at his or her request, the state’s top court said Tuesday in explaining why it ordered disgraced former state senator Nathaniel T. Oaks to remain on June’s Democratic primary ballot.

Oaks, who pleaded guilty to fraud in March, had sought in April to remove his name in advance of the June 26 primary but had missed the statutory deadline for withdrawal. A group of voters in his Baltimore legislative district had joined in the legal fight for Oaks’ belated withdrawal.

But the high court rejected their bid, citing the election law’s mandates.

“In this instance, there is nothing in the context of the statute that suggests that the state board has discretion to remove a name from the ballot that the statute says ‘shall appear’ and ‘shall remain’ on that ballot,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the majority. “Indeed, the sequence of deadlines in the statute demonstrates that the General Assembly contemplated the possibility that a person who filed a certificate of candidacy might have a change of mind after doing so and provided a window for the person to reverse course.”

In explaining its May 2 order preserving Oaks’ name, the high court said it owes “judicial deference” to the legislature’s policy decisions regarding election procedures.

“The plain language of the statute, read in context, and confirmed by its legislative history manifests that the directives in (the law) concerning ballot content are mandatory,” McDonald wrote. “To hold otherwise would be contrary to the statute’s plain language, and would delegate unspecified discretion to the state board to remove names from a primary election ballot without direction from the legislature as to when to do so.”

McDonald was joined in the opinion by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Judges Clayton Greene Jr. and Sally D. Adkins.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Joseph M. Getty noted Oaks’ guilty plea to felony fraud in March would have disqualified him as a registered voter – and thus from the ballot – before the law changed in 2007. That year, the General Assembly passed the Voter Registration Protection Act, which made disqualification effective at the date of imprisonment, not conviction.

But Judge Shirley M. Watts, in dissent, said the high court should not have overturned Anne Arundel County Circuit Court’s order that Oaks’ name be removed. The board could have legally stricken Oaks’ name from the ballot because – if elected – he would have been ineligible to take office in January because by then he would have been a sentenced felon, Watts added.

“Under those circumstances, leaving the circuit court’s ruling intact would have been the right thing to do for the voters of Maryland Legislative District 41 in Baltimore City, and for the general integrity of the primary election,” Watts wrote in a dissent joined by Judge Michele D. Hotten. “No one could argue that having Oaks’ name on the ballot when he was awaiting sentencing in federal court and would not have been able to serve as a state senator after a sentence of incarceration, and when he had relinquished his right to vote, was in the public interest.”

Oaks resigned from the Senate on March 28, one day before pleading guilty in federal court to wire fraud and honest services wire fraud in connection with a phony development scheme he participated in during his time in the House of Delegates. Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Jill P. Carter, a Democrat, to complete Oaks’ Senate term.

Oaks finished a distant third in the three-way race for the Democratic nomination.

Carter won with 54.9 percent of the vote, followed by J.D. Merrill with 38.7 percent and Oaks with 6.4 percent.

Oaks was sentenced July 17 to three-and-a-half years in prison.

The high court rendered its decision in Linda H. Lamone v. Nancy Lewin et al., No. 85, September  2017.

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