Md. Court of Appeals retirement could impact redistricting cases

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With lawsuits seeking to overturn the state’s new legislative district maps set to begin on Wednesday, and with challenges to the state’s congressional district map also likely to wind up in the Maryland Court of Appeals, the future of the court’s chief judge, Joseph M. Getty, is the object of much speculation.

Getty hits the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges in just three weeks — he’ll turn 70 on April 14. So there is some question about whether he’ll be able to preside over the redistricting trials for the duration of the cases.

Getty has served on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, for 5 1/2 years, but he’s been chief judge since just last September. Because redistricting in Maryland — and in many other states — is such a hyperpartisan exercise, there has been some speculation that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) installed Getty as chief judge specifically so he could preside over the redistricting cases.

Getty is a former Republican lawmaker who served as chief legislative liaison for both Hogan and for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). He served in the house of delegates, representing Carroll County, from 1995 to 2003. And he was a state senator from 2011 until he joined the Hogan administration in 2015.

Getty has also held explicitly partisan positions: He was political director for Ehrlich’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002, was twice chair of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee, was chair of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign in Carroll County, and was an elected Romney delegate to the 2012 Republican National Convention.

None of this is explicitly relevant to Getty’s ability to preside over redistricting cases in the Appeals Court. And yet, some Hogan allies have gleefully noted that of six judges serving on the court (there is one vacancy), five have been appointed by the Republican governor.

But what of Getty’s ability to preside over and rule on redistricting challenges, which will dominate the court docket — and the minds of many Maryland political leaders — over the next few weeks?

The Court of Appeals, with a special magistrate presiding, is set to hear the legislative redistricting challenges beginning Wednesday. A retired Court of Appeals judge has heard a challenge to the state’s congressional map, and that case could also wind up before the state’s highest court.

By recently reordering the state’s political calendar, Getty and his fellow Court of Appeals judges seemed to signal that they hope to get their work done on the political maps just before Getty steps down. The new filing deadline for candidates — it already has been delayed twice — is April 15, to correspond with the delayed date for the state primary, pushed back to July 19. That suggests the judges hope to dispense with redistricting cases and finalize district maps before then.

It’s also possible they will fall short of that goal, depending on trials that are set to begin and dispensation of the judges’ deliberations that will follow.

The governor and his allies are clearly hoping that if the Court of Appeals judges choose to throw out the congressional and legislative district boundaries crafted by the Democrat-dominated General Assembly, the district maps from the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, which was headed by Hogan appointees, will be used as viable alternatives.

But it’s entirely possible that, if the judges seek alternatives to maps currently in place, they’ll turn to other experts to redraw the district lines. Either way, time is of the essence, though it’s also possible that the primary gets delayed again.

According to state law, Getty must retire on April 14, regardless of the status of the redistricting cases. On April 15, he’ll no longer be the chief judge of the Court of Appeals or a judge on the panel at all.

However, under provisions in state law, he is eligible to be recalled to the Court of Appeals as a senior judge.

“He will be available as part of a pool of former COA judges to sit on future cases when a member of the Court finds it necessary to recuse from a case,” Bradley Tanner, public information officer of the Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts, told Maryland Matters in an email Tuesday.

Typically, judges apply for senior judge status several months before their retirement date, and Getty did so months ago, Tanner said. His application was considered by the Court of Appeals at its monthly conference on Jan. 27, with Getty recusing himself from the discussion and deliberations. The remaining judges approved Getty’s application, effective April 15.

So, according to Tanner, “[s]hould any deliberations on the redistricting matters continue after April 14, the same panel of judges will continue the deliberations and/or conference the written opinion. However, any in-person deliberations would be presided over by the most senior member of the Court” rather than Getty. The senior member of the Court of Appeals is Judge Shirley M. Watts — the lone remaining member of the court appointed by Hogan’s predecessor, former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D).

Hogan’s two nominees to fill vacancies on the Court of Appeals — the vacancy brought on by Getty’s looming retirement, and the vacancy caused last fall by the retirement of former Judge Robert N. McDonald — were recently confirmed in the state Senate.

Hogan nominated Angela M. Eaves, a judge on the Harford County Circuit Court, to replace McDonald. He nominated Matthew J. Fader, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, to fill Getty’s slot. Once sworn in, Hogan would then choose one of the sitting judges to serve as chief judge.

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