Circuit Court Judge Candidate Field Narrowed To Four

BERLIN – The field of nominees for the recently vacated Worcester County Circuit Court judgeship was narrowed to four this week and includes a handful of familiar names in the local legal system.

After reviewing applications and conducting extensive interviews, the Maryland Judicial Nominating Committee on Tuesday forwarded a list of four names to Governor Martin O’Malley, who will ultimately appoint a replacement for long-time Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Theodore Eschenberg, who officially retired in late June having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. From the original list of five applicants for the vacant judgeship, the nominating committee forwarded the names of four candidates to the governor from which he will make the appointment.

The list includes sitting Worcester County Circuit Court Master Mary Margaret “Peggy” Kent, along with prominent local attorneys Brian Shockley, Regan J.R. Smith and Kathryn Westbrook. A fifth applicant, Baltimore City prosecutor Cheryl Kelley Jacobs, was left off the list of potential appointees forwarded to the governor.

O’Malley will now make an appointment from the list forwarded to him by the nominating committee, which interviewed the candidates on Tuesday before officially narrowing the list. There is little to be gleaned from length of the list forwarded to the governor. Typically, the governor expects a list of at least three names for a judicial appointment and the committee this week forwarded to him four names for consideration. It is uncertain what would happen if the appointment process dragged on beyond next month’s general election, but regardless of the outcome, O’Malley remain governor until January.

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 were conspicuous by their absence from the list applicants. 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, Worcester Circuit Court 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.

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. Smith said this week he was pleased to be included on the short list forwarded to the governor.

“Obviously, I’m very pleased to be included on this list that includes so many qualified candidates,” he said. “I also think it’s gratifying that the field of candidates are all from our local bar association. It was a rigorous application and interview process and it’s an honor to be considered.”

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. He was also gratified with making the short list.

“”I’m very pleased to be included on the list with three other excellent candidates and I’m looking forward to the next phase in the process,” he said. “I was especially impressed with the amount of work and effort that goes into the process. I think people would be happy to know the effort that goes into this and that it is not a decision that is taken lightly.”