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.
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.