Reconsidering his earlier decision, an Anne Arundel County Circuit judge Thursday ordered the Maryland State Board of Elections to remove the name of former state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks from the June 26 Democratic primary ballot for the 41st District.
Judge Glenn L. Klavans ruled that since his initial decision Friday, Oaks voluntarily removed his name from the Maryland voter rolls, and thus, under state law, was no longer a qualified candidate. Therefore, Klavans wrote in a two-page order granting a preliminary injunction, the elections board had to remove the disgraced legislator’s name.
“The harm to the voters by way of potential confusion, inadvertence, and/or mischief by the appearance of a disqualified name on the ballot far outweighs any inconvenience to the Board of Elections,” Klavans wrote. “No less comprehensive remedy, such as the posting of signs at polling places, can assure that the voters’ rights to effectively exercise their franchise will be protected.”
Within hours of the ruling, the Maryland Attorney General’s office, lawyers for the elections board, filed notice of its intention to appeal Klavans’ order with both the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, and the Court of Special Appeals.
The attorney general’s office then filed a motion for an appellate court to immediately stay Klavans’s injunction, pending further review.
By day’s end, attorneys for the three 41st District voters seeking to have Oaks’s name removed from the ballot filed a counter motion opposing the state’s request for an appeals court to halt Klavans’ order.
Ex-Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks
One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers said he was pleased with Klavans’ decision.
“I’m happy with the judge’s ruling, and we look forward to a final resolution by the appellate courts,” said H. Mark Stichel, a lawyer representing activists Nancy Lord Lewin, Elinor G. “Ellie” Mitchell and Christopher R. Ervin in the case.
State elections officials on Monday began the time-sensitive and complicated process of proofing, testing and printing 747 different configurations of the primary ballot that will be used at polling places statewide.
At a hearing last Friday, Klavans refused to order state elections officials to remove Oaks’ name from the ballot for Baltimore’s 41st District because at that point, he was still a registered voter and under state law, a qualified candidate – despite pleading guilty March 29 to two federal felonies.
In ruling from the bench, however, Klavans did allow that his decision might be different, were Oaks not qualified to run for office.
Last weekend, Stichel and Elizabeth A. Harlan, lawyers representing the three 41st District voters, asked Oaks, through his defense lawyer, to cancel his voter registration.
On Monday, Oaks withdrew his Maryland voter registration at the Baltimore City Board of Elections, prompting Stichel and Harlan to file the motion for reconsideration.
As Klavans is on vacation this week, the matter fell Monday to Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Cathleen M. Vitale, who recused herself from the case, but accepted the plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration and scheduled a hearing for Thursday before another judge.
On Thursday morning, however, attorneys for both sides were notified that the reconsideration hearing scheduled for 1:30 p.m. before Judge William C. Mulford II was cancelled, that they were excused from showing up, and that Klavans would be ruling on the motion for reconsideration without a further airing of the matter in court.
At 11:13 a.m., Klavans signed and issued his order, which was then filed with the court clerk’s office.
“The court … finds that there is a likelihood that the plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of this case, and that the plaintiffs have raised a substantial question concerning whether the defendant is violating Maryland law and the Maryland Constitution by the refusal to remove Mr. Oaks’ name from the ballot,” the judge wrote.
“The court finds the balance of convenience favors the plaintiffs, and that the public interest would be served by the issuance of a preliminary injunction,” he wrote.
A Maryland election official testified Friday that while removing the name was still possible, though not easy, the risk of a mistake in the state’s voting systems would be greatly increased.
Natasha D. Walker, project manager of election management for the state board, explained to the court in great detail the involved process for printing hundreds of versions of the primary ballot for use at different congressional, legislative and local districts on election day.
Under state law, the deadline for printing ballots is May 7, 2018, and the federally mandated deadline for mailing absentee ballots to overseas and military voters is May 12, 2018.
But in his decision Thursday, Klavans said he believed there was still time to deal with the 41st District ballots.
“For the reasons expressed by the court at the original adversary hearing in this matter, the court finds that the Board of Elections still has adequate time to reform the ballots in Baltimore City,” Klavans said.
Unless a judge ordered Oaks’ name removed, it would appear twice on the 41st District ballot – as a candidate for both the Maryland Senate and Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee – because he was qualified at the time of the state’s Feb. 27 primary election filing deadline and the subsequent withdraw and disqualification dates.
Although Oaks, 71, was under indictment at the filing deadline, he did not plead guilty until more than a month later to two charges of wire fraud and honest services wire fraud stemming from a federal political corruption probe in which he took $15,300 in bribes from an FBI undercover source.
Trento, the assistant attorney general, had argued that there is nothing in Maryland law that allowed election officials to remove Oaks’s name from the ballot, given the circumstances – and timing – of the ex-lawmaker’s situation.
Oaks’ name appears on the 41st District ballot with two other Democrats vying for the Senate seat, Jill P. Carter and J.D. Merrill. It also appears in a second spot with 23 other candidates for the seven-member 41st District Democratic State Central Committee.
Other than death, only two factors could have disqualified Oaks as a voter, and thus, as a candidate – withdrawing his own state voter registration or entering prison after a court-ordered sentence for a felony conviction.
Oaks, who has said he does not want to appear on the ballot and signed an affidavit to that effect that is filed in both Anne Arundel Circuit Court and U.S. District Court, opted Monday for officially removing his name from the Maryland voter rolls.
Oaks resigned his Maryland Senate seat just two hours before pleading guilty in Baltimore before U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, who is scheduled to sentence him July 17, three weeks after the primary.