Fa­mil­iar faces in con­tention for judge­ships

Six vie for cir­cuit, district seats

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - By JA­COB OWENS

jowens@ce­cil­whig.com

— Among those in con­tention for open­ings on the Ce­cil County cir­cuit and district courts are fa­mil­iar faces in the county’s le­gal and po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity.

Re­cent re­tire­ments of both Cir­cuit Court Judge Michael V. Whe­lan and District Court Judge Stephen Baker have opened op­por­tu­ni­ties on both the county’s up­per and lower

ELKTON

courts — a unique op­por­tu­nity for those eye­ing the pin­na­cle of the le­gal pro­fes­sion. With the cir­cuit court’s three other seats and district court’s one other seat filled in re­cent years, th­ese open­ings may be the best shot for some lawyers look­ing to ad­vance their ca­reer.

While Whe­lan reached the state’s manda­tory ju­di­cial re­tire­ment age of 70, Baker de­cided to step down last year at the age of 60. Both men con­tinue to hear a lim­ited num­ber of cases as re­tired judges, a com­mon oc­cur­rence through­out the state as courts deal with a grow­ing num­ber of cases.

Ap­pli­cants are free to nom­i­nate them­selves for con­sid­er­a­tion for a gu­ber­na­to­rial ap­point­ment to the ju­di­cial bench, but they are then vet­ted by the District 2 Trial Courts Ju­di­cial Nom­i­nat­ing Com­mis­sion, which fea­tures sev­eral other Ce­cil County lawyers and of­fi­cials. The com­mis­sion, af­ter its June 2 in­ter­views with ap­pli­cants, will then cre­ate a “short list” of of­fi­cial nom­i­na­tions for Gov. Larry Ho­gan, who will make the ul­ti­mate de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Ap­pli­cants for Whe­lan’s cir­cuit court seat in­clude Ce­cil County State’s At­tor­ney E.D.E “El­lis” Rollins III, for­mer Del­e­gate Michael Smigiel Sr., pub­lic de­fender Ed­win “E.B.” Fock­ler IV and Elkton de­fense at­tor­ney Wil­liam Davis Jr.

Ap­pli­cants for Baker’s district court seat in­cludes Elkton lawyer Clara Camp­bell and as­sis­tant state’s at­tor­ney Stephanie Hamil­ton along with Smigiel, Fock­ler and Davis.

Once ap­pointed to a seat, new cir­cuit court judges must run for elec­tion in the next state elec­tion. If elected in a non-par­ti­san elec­tion, they serve a 15-year term. On the other hand, district court judges are ap­pointed by the gov­er­nor, rat­i­fied by the Mary­land Se­nate for 10-year terms and do not have to run for elec­tion. E.D.E “El­lis” Rollins III Many in the county surely know the long legacy of the Rollins fam­ily on the Ce­cil County Cir­cuit Court bench stretch­ing back al­most 60 years when El­lis Rollins III’s

grand­fa­ther, Ed­ward Dorsey El­lis Rollins Sr., as­sumed a seat from 1957 to 1969. He was then fol­lowed by Rollins’ late fa­ther, E.D.E. Rollins Jr. from 1984 to 2002.

So it has been no se­cret that Rollins, 60, who was elected state’s at­tor­ney in 2010, has an eye on the cir­cuit court bench. He has un­suc­cess­fully run for cir­cuit court seats twice, los­ing out to cir­cuit court judges Whe­lan in 2010 and Jane Cairns Mur­ray in 2011.

“I had three heroes grow­ing up: Brooks Robin­son, Johnny Uni­tas and my dad,” Rollin said. “I tried to be Brooks or Johnny and it just didn’t work out, but I can try to fol­low in my dad’s foot­steps. My dad was a great judge, and I hope that one day I get the op­por­tu­nity to be one too.”

Rollins said he didn’t know that he was des­tined to prac­tice law un­til he en­tered law school at Uni­ver­sity of Bal­ti­more.

“I opened that first book and started read­ing, and I just thought, ‘Yep, this is what I’m meant for,’” he re­called.

Af­ter earn­ing his de­gree and pass­ing the bar in 1980, he went to work with his fa­ther. Just three years later, how­ever, when his fa­ther was ap­pointed to the cir­cuit court bench, he was forced to take over the fam­ily prac­tice.

“Daunt­ing doesn’t even de­scribe it. I was ter­ri­fied that no one would come to the of­fice, but slowly they did,” he said.

For 30 years, Rollins ran a pri­vate prac­tice cov­er­ing nearly ev­ery man­ner of the law from crim­i­nal to fam­ily, es­tate to busi­ness. In be­ing elected the county’s top pros­e­cu­tor, Rollins said his ex­pe­ri­ence has grown im­mensely.

“I think it rounded out my ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause it gave the me op­por­tu­nity to see the other side of the ta­ble,” he said. “Job No. 1 is to get it right, and that’s what we strive to do. Prob­a­bly most im­por­tantly though, I’ve learned there’s a time when you need to bring the ham­mer and there’s times when you don’t.” Michael Smigiel Sr. For­mer Del­e­gate Michael Smigiel Sr. is no stranger to those who have watched the lo­cal po­lit­i­cal land­scape as he rep­re­sented Ce­cil County in the state’s lower leg­is­la­ture for three terms.

Smigiel, a lawyer for 27 years, hasn’t drifted off qui­etly since los­ing a re-elec­tion bid in 2015, un­suc­cess­fully run­ning for Congress against U.S. Rep. Andy Har­ris in the lat­est Repub­li­can Pri­mary Elec­tion. He has also thrice pur­sued a judge­ship, run­ning un­suc­cess­fully against E.D.E. Rollins Jr. in the 2000 Repub­li­can pri­mary, run­ning un­suc­cess­fully against cir­cuit judges Keith Baynes and Mur­ray in the 2012 elec­tion and ap­ply­ing un­suc­cess­fully for the district court judge­ship that ul­ti­mately went to Bon­nie Sch­nei­der in 2008.

But Smigiel, 57, re­mains com­mit­ted to the law and said there would be “no prej­u­dice or fa­voritism” in his court­room.

“I’m not a po­lit­i­cal per­son when it comes to the law,” he said. “I think it’s time that we have peo­ple who are not per­haps born in the county, but came here and chose to make this his or her home on our bench.”

While his po­lit­i­cal flair may have earned him some en­e­mies, Smigiel also boasts an ac­com­plished le­gal ca­reer that saw him serve on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee in the Mary­land House of Del­e­gates, the At­tor­ney Grievance Com­mis­sion and the Ce­cil County Bar As­so­ci­a­tion’s Ethics Com­mit­tee. He has ap­pealed more than two dozen cases to Mary­land’s high­est court, pub­lished an opinion in fed­eral court, pub­lished a po­si­tion piece on the Sec­ond Amend­ment in the Mary­land State Bar Jour­nal and earned what may be the largest set­tle­ment in Ce­cil County his­tory at $7.7 mil­lion.

“When you’re an at­tor­ney, your ca­reer comes to that point where you have to de­cide if you’re go­ing to seek a judge­ship,” he said. “I feel my cre­den­tials are in line if not bet­ter than any other in the run­ning.” Wil­liam Davis Jr. De­fense at­tor­ney Will Davis has spent a lot of time in Ce­cil County’s court­rooms, help­ing pro­vide de­fen­dants with their le­gal rights, but he soon hopes to be weigh­ing the cases per­son­ally.

Davis, who ran un­suc­cess­fully against then-State’s At­tor­ney Christo­pher Eastridge in 2006, is mak­ing his first at­tempt at a judge­ship.

He has long been a voice for crim­i­nal de­fen­dants, serv­ing as both a pri­vate de­fense at­tor­ney and a con­tracted panel pub­lic de­fender, since mov­ing to the county 13 years ago. Davis, 41, has also been ac­tive in the lo­cal com­mu­nity, serv­ing on the Ce­cil Col­lege Board of Trustees, help­ing in Elkton’s Youth Em­pow­er­ment Source and coach­ing bas­ket­ball at the YMCA of Ce­cil County, among other ef­forts.

It’s his con­nec­tion to his com­mu­nity that is driv­ing his at­tempt at a judge­ship in ei­ther cir­cuit or district court.

“I want to be­come a judge to help make a pos­i­tive im­pact of the com­mu­nity,” he said. “When I first moved here, you didn’t read about mul­ti­ple homi­cides in the county, but now we do.”

A grad­u­ate of Ge­or­gia State Uni­ver­sity Col­lege of Law, Davis said one of his most for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences came while work­ing with a pri­vately-funded firm that takes on in­di­gent de­fen­dants, called the Ge­or­gia Jus­tice Project.

“That ex­pe­ri­ence is one of the main ones that led me into crim­i­nal de­fense,” he said. “The pi­lot light lit in my pas­sion for crim­i­nal law.”

Af­ter ar­riv­ing in Ce­cil County with his fam­ily, Davis spent time es­tab­lish­ing a pri­vate prac­tice that did many types of law, in­clud­ing di­vorce, cus­tody and busi­ness. In 2013, how­ever, he be­gan fo­cus­ing more solely on crim­i­nal de- fense and has rep­re­sented cases as var­ied as speed­ing tick­ets to mur­der.

“It has given me tons of trial ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “It feels like the right time for me to take the next step.” Ed­win “E.B.” Fock­ler IV Like some of his peers, Ed­win B. Fock­ler IV comes from a fam­ily of lawyers: his fa­ther, Ed­win B. Fock­ler III, and brother, Karl H. Fock­ler, are well known to the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

But Fock­ler, 51, didn’t al­ways want to be a lawyer and spent much of his youth op­er­at­ing a night­club in the county. Seek­ing to ad­vance a ca­reer, he en­tered law school and grad­u­ated from Wi­dener Uni­ver­sity School of Law in 1999.

He worked briefly for his fam­ily prac­tice, be­fore set­ting out on his own, han­dling di­vorces, cus­tody dis­pute cases, work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion cases, bank­rupt­cies, con­tract dis­putes, real es­tate set­tle­ments and land­lord/ten­ant dis­putes. Many of the is­sues that he tack­led were built on the foun­da­tion of me­di­at­ing two op­pos­ing sides.

It was in law school that Fock­ler said he be­gan to see the dif­fi­cul­ties in be­ing a crim­i­nal de­fense a t t o r n e y, but he was in­trigued by the chal­lenge. When an open­ing in the pub­lic de­fender’s of­fice came open in 2009, he ap­plied for it and changed his fo­cus to de­fend­ing those who can­not af­ford a pri­vate de­fense at­tor­ney. To­day, Fock­ler rou­tinely han­dles dozens of cases each week of ju­ve­nile and adult de­fen­dants.

“As a pub­lic de­fender, you re­ally be­come part of the le­gal sys­tem,” he said. “Our job is to get them through the process, make sure their rights are up­held and that they get their day in court.”

One of the as­pects of his job that Fock­ler en­joys most is that he can help de­fen­dants be­gin to turn their life around even be­fore they get to a court­room.

“Whether it’s get­ting them into a drug treat­ment pro­gram or en­rolling them into a class, I can be that voice that they lis­ten to,” he said. “I like help­ing peo­ple, but I’m also a big pro­po­nent of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity. While we de­fend them as clients, we don’t al­ways ap­prove of their ac­tions.”

To that end, Fock­ler said his ex­pe­ri­ence with de­fen­dants would al­low him to be an im­par­tial judge, who lis­tens and ren­ders a de­ci­sion based upon the facts and tes­ti­mony pre­sented. He also said that he would con­sider all kinds of sen­tences for the guilty, con­sid­er­ing what would be in the best in­ter­est of the pub­lic as well as the per­son be­ing sen­tenced. Clara Camp­bell Long­time Elkton lawyer Clara Camp­bell made the cal­cu­lated de­ci­sion to seek the open­ing in district court, hav­ing prac­ticed law in the county for nearly 30 years.

“El­lis has more years of ex­pe­ri­ence than any­one in the run­ning for the cir­cuit court seat and he’s had the most var­ied ex­pe­ri­ence in the law of any­one. As far as I’m con­cerned, if El­lis is vy­ing for that po­si­tion, he should have it,” she said. “I’d be very happy serv­ing in district court. I think I have a lot to bring to it.”

Camp­bell, 55, pre­vi­ously made the short list of can­di­dates for the cir­cuit court seat that ul­ti­mately went to Brenda Sex­ton in 2013, but she said she wasn’t dis­cour­aged by not get­ting picked. In fact, she and Sex­ton are long­time friends.

“It’s not un­com­mon to go through the process at least once be­fore get­ting picked,” she said. “I’ve al­ways con­sid­ered be­ing a judge as a pos­si­bil­ity, but it hasn’t been a ca­reer-long as­pi­ra­tion.”

Camp­bell was born and raised in the North East area, and spent years serv­ing as a law clerk for the Cir­cuit Court for Ce­cil County, serv­ing un­der the late judges Don­ald­son Cole Jr. and E.D.E. Rollins Jr. Since pass­ing the bar in 1987, she’s worked with sev­eral other Elkton lawyers and in 2012 ex­panded her own prac­tice lo­cated at 190 E. Main St.

She now leads the largest law of­fice in Elkton with four other lawyers on staff, and has prac­ticed nearly all man­ners of law from mu­nic­i­pal to fam­ily, traf­fic to crim­i­nal, and wills and es­tates. She also serves as le­gal coun­sel to the county’s plan­ning com­mis­sion, board of ap­peals, depart­ment of per­mit­ting and in­spec­tions, and depart­ment of plan­ning and zon­ing.

“The re­spon­si­bil­ity of hear­ing tes­ti­mony dur­ing county hear­ings is very much the same as hear­ing a case in district court,” she said. “Whether you’re the first per­son or the 23rd, ev­ery per­son has the right to be heard.” Stephanie Hamil­ton As­sis­tant state’s at­tor­ney Stephanie Hamil­ton has spent the past 12 years watch­ing the ins-and-outs of the work at Ce­cil County District Court, which is what com­pelled her to pur­sue the open seat there.

“I know that I can do a good job if I’m ap­pointed,” she said. “It’s not that I can do a bet­ter, be­cause I’ve been in front of a lot of great judges, but with the in­crease of crim­i­nal and drug cases in court, I hope that I can con­trib­ute to a so­lu­tion to that prob­lem.”

Hamil­ton, 49, took an un­con­ven­tional path to her le­gal ca­reer, drop­ping out of col­lege only to re­turn to com­mu­nity col­lege. At Ce­cil Col­lege, a coun­selor sug­gested she look at Uni­ver­sity of Bal­ti­more, specif­i­cally its prelaw pro­gram. Once she grad­u­ated from UB, she at­tended Wi­dener Uni­ver­sity School of Law where she earned her law de­gree in 1995.

“I al­ways knew that I wanted to be in the court­room, so I joined the pub­lic de­fender’s of­fices in Ce­cil and Har­ford coun­ties,” she said.

Af­ter years of earn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as a de­fense at­tor­ney, Hamil­ton was of­fered an as­sis­tant state’s at­tor­ney’s po­si­tion in Ce­cil County. In her time pros­e­cut­ing in Ce­cil County District Court, she’s han­dled thou­sands of cases, pri­mar­ily traf­fic and crim­i­nal.

Hhow­ever, Hamil­ton said that as a judge, she would be most ex­cited to work with, and help ed­u­cate, the pub­lic, many of whom likely have lit­tle or no ex­pe­ri­ence with the le­gal sys­tem.

“In district court, you re­ally touch a lot more peo­ple,” she said. “A lot of peo­ple may never have to go to court and oth­ers may only go once or twice, and if they do, they’re likely go­ing to end up in district court. And with the econ­omy the way it is, more peo­ple aren’t hir­ing coun­sel and are do­ing it them­selves, but judges still have to bal­ance jus­tice and the law re­gard­less.”

(Edi­tor’s dis­clo­sure: Stephanie Hamil­ton is mar­ried to the Whig’s crime and courts re­porter, Carl Hamil­ton. As a mat­ter of news­pa­per pol­icy, he does not cover any cases han­dled by her.)

DAVIS

HAMIL­TON

ROLLINS

SMIGIEL

FOCK­LER

CAMP­BELL

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