Maryland lawmaker’s judgeship bid foreshadows upheaval in Annapolis

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery). (Danielle E. Gaines/Maryland Matters)

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Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), a senior lawmaker and vice chair of the powerful House Economic Matters Committee, has applied to become a judge on the Montgomery County District Court — potentially opening up a plum legislative position in the weeks ahead.

But Dumais’ possible departure, which could happen in the next several weeks if she’s selected for one of three vacant slots on the court, may foreshadow even greater upheaval in the highest echelons of power in Annapolis.

Multiple legislative sources have told Maryland Matters that they expect long-serving state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) to announce her retirement sometime this fall. If that occurs, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), the chair of Economic Matters, is seen as the overwhelming favorite to replace her, with a vote in the General Assembly possibly taking place during the proposed special session on congressional redistricting in early December.

That development, heading into an election year, would create several dominoes of its own — with Del. CT Wilson (D-Charles) the likeliest candidate to take the gavel on Economic Matters.

Many of the principals declined to comment or agreed to speak only if granted anonymity — out of deference to Kopp, a venerated figure in Maryland politics, and in consideration of Speaker Adrienne A. Jones’ opportunity to continue to shape her leadership team, two-plus years after taking over for the late Speaker Michael E. Busch (D).

“She is thinking about what the next four years are going to look like, and all the chess pieces,” one high-ranking lawmaker said.

Kopp said she has heard the same rumors but did not address them directly.

“There are always these discussions at this point in an election cycle,” she said. “Obviously my future plans are something I’m giving serious thought to right now. I’m just not ready to announce them yet.”

Kopp and Davis are two of the most senior and powerful figures in state government.

Kopp, 77, has been treasurer since 2002, serving alongside four governors on the Board of Public Works, and was a member of the House of Delegates for 28 years before that. A highly-respected expert on fiscal matters, Kopp was the first state legislator in U.S. history to give birth while in office. She is the second woman state treasurer in Maryland and the second-longest-serving treasurer in state history.

Davis, 54, was elected to the House in 1994 and became chair of Economic Matters when Busch became speaker in 2003. Thanks to his committee’s broad portfolio, he has been a major power in Annapolis on banking, insurance, energy, liquor, technology and labor policy.

But Davis’ two other attempts to move up the political ladder have fallen short: He dropped out of the 2016 Democratic primary in the 4th congressional district, and was a runner-up in the scramble to replace Busch in the spring of 2019. In the latter contest, Davis appeared to have the votes to be elected speaker combining his support in the Democratic and Republican caucuses, but he acceded to fellow Democrats’ wishes to find a consensus candidate and deferred when Jones emerged as the compromise choice in the caucus.

The General Assembly elects the state treasurer to four-year terms, though if Kopp retires this fall, her successor would serve through early 2023, when the process to elect a treasurer for the next four years would begin. While nothing is set in stone, the legislature is tentatively supposed to convene in a special session in early December to draw a new congressional map to be used for the next decade. Legislative leaders believe the treasurer election could take place during that special session, depending on Kopp’s timing. Davis’ ascension to treasurer would be a political trophy for Prince George’s County, which fell short in the 2019 speaker contest and later that year, when then-Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D) was the runner-up in the race to become Senate president after Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. stepped down from the role.

Because the House of Delegates has three times as many members as the state Senate, House members frequently have an advantage in the vote to become treasurer — and the speaker effectively controls the process. The last four state treasurers were current or former House members at the time they were elected.

But the procedure for electing a treasurer is laid out in the state constitution, and anyone qualified to run for statewide office is eligible to apply for the treasurer position. The legislature sets a process for interviewing the candidates before lawmakers vote — meaning Davis’ election is not completely a done deal.

Still, the expected developments involving Kopp and Davis are among the worst-kept secrets in Annapolis — and the buzz about Wilson succeeding Davis as chair of the Economic Matters Committee is growing louder. Wilson, 49, an attorney who is chair of the panel’s Business Regulation Subcommittee, was emcee at an Annapolis fundraiser for Davis earlier this month, where there was freewheeling and lighthearted conversation about both lawmakers’ futures, according to attendees.

In recent weeks, there has been some speculation in Annapolis that in the event that Davis becomes treasurer, House Judiciary Chair Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), who served on Economic Matters from 2015 to 2019, or House Environment and Transportation Chair Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), who served on Economic Matters from 1991 to 2003, could take over, creating a domino effect on their committees. But Wilson increasingly is seen as Jones’ likely choice.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Wilson said in an interview this week. “The speaker keeps her own counsel.”

Dumais to the bench?

Meanwhile, Dumais, the Economic Matters vice chair, recently applied for the court vacancy that became open when Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gary E. Bair retired earlier this year.

“It’s a natural progression,” Dumais said of her interest in the job. “Combines my [legal] practice experience with my legislative experience. I thought this was an opportunity to combine my career skills.”

Dumais is senior counsel, specializing in family law, at Ethridge Quinn Kemp Rowan & Hartinger, a firm with offices in Rockville and Frederick.

Like other candidates for judicial vacancies in Maryland, Dumais is going through a vetting process right now. Eventually, a screening committee of lawyers will pass recommendations along to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who makes the selection. The new judge must then go before the voters and run for a full 15-year term in the next election.

Ironically, Dumais has sponsored controversial and heavily-debated legislation in recent years that calls for a constitutional amendment to allow Circuit Court judges to be appointed with Senate confirmation and then run in retention elections, rather than in wide-open scrums.

“I personally am a strong believer in the vetting process, even though it’s driving me crazy at the moment,” Dumais said.

According to the judicial vacancies page on the Maryland court system’s website, Dumais is one of a dozen candidates who have applied for the judgeship, a list that includes District Court Judge Carlos F. Acosta, attorney James Bradford McCullough, who applied unsuccessfully for a recent vacancy on the Maryland Court of Appeals, and attorney Rachel T. McGuckian, who previously served on the Maryland State Ethics Commission.

But there are a couple of twists that suggest that even with a dozen contenders, Dumais has a reasonable shot at a nomination: For starters, this is the third time that the state has advertised the vacancy for Bair’s position, and some of the candidates on the current list have applied in the previous go-rounds.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said that state law requires re-advertisement for a vacancy when the judicial nominating commission forwards the governor fewer than three names — which, he said, is what occurred each of the previous two times Bair’s position was advertised.

What’s more, two more Circuit Court judges in Montgomery County have retired since Bair’s vacancy was advertised: Judge Robert A. Greenberg, who was the court’s administrative judge at the time of his retirement, and Judge Cynthia Callahan. Those vacancies have yet to be advertised, but it’s possible some of the applicants for Bair’s former position could be considered for the other slots.

Dumais, who is 63, said one of the reasons she decided to apply for a judgeship now is the knowledge that the judicial retirement age in Maryland is 70, meaning she won’t have too many more opportunities to serve. But Dumais, who was elected to the House in 2002 and has also served as majority leader in the chamber and vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, said her transfer from Judiciary to Economic Matters in 2019 was also part of her calculation.

“Factored in my decision to apply to the bench is, I’ve enjoyed working on ECM, but they’re not the issues I’m passionate about,” she said.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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