Familiar faces in contention for judgeships
Six vie for circuit, district seats
— 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
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.)