Five Applicants In Running For County Judge’s Seat

BERLIN – The field of
applicants for the recently vacated Worcester County Circuit Court judgeship
was made public this week and includes a handful of familiar names including a
sitting Circuit Court Master and a few well-known local attorneys.

The Maryland Judicial
Nominating Committee late Wednesday posted the list of applicants for the
Worcester County Circuit Court seat made vacant by longtime Judge Theodore
Eschenberg, who officially retired in late June having reached the mandatory
retirement age of 70.

The list includes
sitting Worcester County Circuit Court Master Mary Margaret “Peggy” Kent,
prominent local attorneys including Brian Shockley, Regan J.R. Smith and
Kathryn Westbrook and Baltimore City prosecutor Cheryl Kelley Jacobs.

With the passage of the
Aug. 11 deadline to apply for the vacancy, the Judicial Nominating Committee
will now interview each of the applicants and pare down a smaller list to
present to Governor Martin O’Malley, who will likely make the appointment. The
nominating committee will review the qualifications of the applicants on or
before its Sept. 28 meeting and forward a condensed list to the governor
shortly thereafter.

The governor will then
make an appointment from the list forwarded by the committee, which typically
includes at least three names. It is uncertain what would happen if the
appointment process dragged on beyond the November election.

The qualifications of a
judge fall into distinct categories including legal, professional and personal.
A qualified candidate has to have U.S. and Maryland citizenship, be registered
to vote in state elections at the time of the appointment, be a resident of
Maryland for at least five years and a resident for at least six months prior
to the appointment in the geographic area where the vacancy exists. Other
qualifications include being at least 30 years of age at the time of the
appointment and current membership in the Maryland Bar.

Historically, sitting
District Court judges apply for nomination and are ultimately appointed to fill
vacancies in higher courts, but the sitting District Court judges in Worcester
County are conspicuous by their absence from the list released by the committee
on Wednesday. Certainly, Kent, who has served as Master in the Worcester County
Circuit Court for several years, is an example of a sitting judge who could be
elevated to a higher position in the court system.

However, there is plenty
of precedent for a private attorney gaining an appointment to a Circuit Court
vacancy and the other applicants on the list released this week are clearly
qualified. When Eschenberg retired, longtime colleague on the Worcester Circuit
Court bench Judge Thomas Groton took over as the administrative judge in the
county and Judge Richard Bloxom moved into the position held by Groton.

As a result, the vacant
seat will be the Family Law judge for Worcester County, a position with which
Kent is very familiar. As the current Master for Worcester County, Kent
routinely presides over family law-related cases. Westbrook, a local attorney
with a private practice in West Ocean City, is also well versed in family law
having spent the last 20 years arguing separation agreements, child custody
cases, wills, estates and other family law-related cases. She is currently a
mediator with the Lower Shore Circuit and District Courts.

“That has been the focus
of my practice for the last 20 years,” Westbrook said yesterday. “When the
powers that be decided this was going to be a Family Law seat, I decided I
would apply for it because I would very much like to continue in family law and
this is a logical step for me.”

Smith and Shockley are
both partners in the Ocean City firm Williams, Moore, Shockley and Harrison and
each brings a wealth of experience to the table. Smith’s areas of expertise
include real estate and corporate law, probate, estate planning and zoning law.
He served as assistant state’s attorney in Worcester County from 1989 to 1998
and serves on the Boards of Directors for Atlantic General Hospital and the
Bank of Ocean City.

Shockley will draw on
similar experiences as he seeks the vacant Circuit Court seat. His focus of his
practice has been on civil and criminal law, probate, real estate, corporate
law and administrative and zoning law. He serves on the Boards of Directors for
Peninsula Regional Medical Center, Worcester County GOLD and the Community
Foundation of the Eastern Shore.

Little is known about
Jacobs, other than she is currently an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore
City. The qualifications are specific about the residency of the prospective
nominees including being a resident of Maryland for at least five years and a
resident for at least six months prior to the appointment in the geographic
area where the vacancy exists. Although the extent of her experience in
Worcester is not known, clearly Jacobs must be able to meet the residency
qualifications if she applied for the judicial vacancy.