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Ademiluyi v. Maryland State Board of Elections

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 26, 2018

APRIL ADEMILUYI
v.
MARYLAND STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS; ADMINISTRATOR STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS, LINDA LAMONE; STATE GOVERNOR, LAWRENCE HOGAN; JUDGE INGRID TURNER

          Argued: January 9, 2018

          Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. C-02-CV-17-001383

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Battaglia, Lynne A. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          Watts, J.

         Pursuant to Md. Code Ann., Elec. Law (2002, 2010 Repl. Vol.) ("EL") § 12-202(a), where "no other timely and adequate remedy is provided by" the Election Law Article, a registered voter may bring an action with respect to "any act or omission relating to an election" that is "(1) inconsistent with [the Election Law A]rticle or other law applicable to the elections process[] and (2) may change or has changed the outcome of the election." (Paragraph break omitted). This Court has explained that EL § 12-202 "governs judicial challenges to certain irregularities in relation to an election[, ]" and that, in particular, EL § 12-202 "is the mechanism for challenging the qualifications of a candidate seeking election." Lamone v. Schlakman, 451 Md. 468, 482, 153 A.3d 144, 152 (2017) (cleaned up).

         EL § 12-202(b) sets forth strict deadlines for filing such an action, providing:

A registered voter may seek judicial relief under this section in the appropriate circuit court within the earlier of:
(1)10 days after the act or omission or the date the act or omission became known to the petitioner; or
(2)7 days after the election results are certified, unless the election was a gubernatorial primary or special primary election, in which case 3 days after the elections results are certified.

         This Court has described EL § 12-202(b) as providing "a statutory limitations period[.]" Schlakman, 451 Md. at 485, 153 A.3d at 154. A registered voter who fails to file an action within the statutory limitations period risks having his or her judicial challenge dismissed as untimely. Importantly, "the very short time limits for filing a suit challenging an aspect of an election pursuant to EL § 12-202(b) are evidence of this State's public policy that claims for judicial relief relative to an election must be prosecuted without delay." Baker v. O'Malley, 217 Md.App. 288, 296, 92 A.3d 588, 593, cert. denied, 440 Md. 115, 99 A.3d 779 (2014).

         Given the clear mandate for prompt action in election cases, independent of EL § 12-202(b)'s statutory limitations period for challenging any act or omission relating to an election, a registered voter's action may be barred by the doctrine of laches. "The doctrine of laches, which is both an affirmative defense and an equitable defense, applies where there is an unreasonable delay in the assertion of one party's rights and that delay results in prejudice to the opposing party." Jones v. State, 445 Md. 324, 339, 126 A.3d 1162, 1171 (2015) (cleaned up). The doctrine of laches has been invoked to bar a registered voter's election claims "where the delay in seeking judicial relief was measured in days[.]" Baker, 217 Md.App. at 296, 92 A.3d at 593. Indeed, even an action that is arguably filed within the statutory limitations period of EL § 12-202(b)-i.e., before the election results are certified, and within ten days after the registered voter has knowledge of the challenged act or omission-may nevertheless be barred by the doctrine of laches. See generally Ross v. State Bd. of Elections, 387 Md. 649, 668 & n.8, 672-73, 876 A.2d 692, 703 & n.8, 705-06 (2005).

         In this case, on May 9, 2017, more than six months after the 2016 general election, April Ademiluyi ("Appellant"), an unsuccessful candidate for the position of judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, filed a petition in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County ("the circuit court") seeking to have the candidacy of the successful candidate, the Honorable Ingrid M. Turner ("Judge Turner"), [1] decertified. Appellant alleged that Judge Turner had never practiced law in Maryland, and was, therefore, constitutionally unqualified for judicial office. Appellant named as defendants the Maryland State Board of Elections, State Administrator of Elections Linda Lamone, Governor Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr., and Judge Turner (together, "Appellees"). In the petition, Appellant sought a writ of mandamus ordering the Governor to rescind the commission that he had issued[2] to Judge Turner, and an order decertifying both Judge Turner's candidacy and the election results. On May 22, 2017, Appellant filed an amended petition, raising the same allegations and seeking the same relief. Before any response from Appellees, Appellant filed a motion for summary judgment and a memorandum of law, contending that she was entitled to the position of judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County.

         Thereafter, Appellees filed a motion to dismiss, or, in the alternative, a cross-motion for summary judgment, arguing, in relevant part, that the election claims were untimely under EL §12-202(b) and barred by the doctrine of laches. On September 8, 2017, the circuit court conducted a hearing, and granted the motion to dismiss. The circuit court ruled, in pertinent part, that the petition was untimely filed under EL § 12-202(b), and that the doctrine of laches barred the election claims. On the same day, Appellant filed a notice of appeal to this Court pursuant to EL § 12-203.[3] On September 12, 2017, consistent with its oral ruling, the circuit court issued an order granting the motion to dismiss.

         In this direct appeal, we consider whether the circuit court properly granted the motion to dismiss on the grounds that the petition was untimely filed under EL § 12-202(b) and barred by the doctrine of laches. We hold that the circuit court was correct on both counts. The petition was untimely filed under EL § 12-202(b) because Appellant did not file the petition in the circuit court until May 9, 2017, more than six months after the 2016 general election, and more than one year after Appellant admittedly became aware of the facts that served as the basis for the election claims and at least several months after the election results were certified. And, we determine that there is no basis on which to toll the statute of limitations. Additionally, independent of the statutory limitations period set forth in EL § 12-202(b), the petition is barred by the doctrine of laches because, in filing the petition in the circuit court more than six months after the 2016 general election, Appellant unreasonably delayed in asserting her rights, and that delay prejudiced Appellees. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court. Because we hold that the circuit court correctly granted the motion to dismiss, we need not address the three other questions presented on brief by Appellant that concern the merits of the election claims.[4]

         BACKGROUND

         2016 General Election and Judicial Disabilities Complaint

         In 2016, Appellant was a candidate for judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County in the primary and general elections. In the general election, the candidates included three incumbent judges of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, [5] as well as two lawyers, Appellant and Judge Turner. On November 8, 2016, in the general election, Judge Turner and the three incumbent judges received sufficient votes to win the election; Appellant finished last. After the election results were certified, Governor Hogan issued commissions to the successful candidates, including Judge Turner, who subsequently took the oath that is prescribed by the Constitution of Maryland, and assumed the office of judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County.

         Now, we briefly describe events that occurred before the 2016 general election. On April 14, 2016, before both the 2016 primary election on April 26, 2016, and the general election, Appellant filed with the Commission on Judicial Disabilities ("the Commission") a complaint against Judge Turner, alleging that Judge Turner had committed various ethical violations during the election campaign by engaging in prohibited political activities, including endorsing numerous politicians.[6] In the ethics complaint, Appellant alleged that Judge Turner had made a quid pro quo agreement with Maryland Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk that Judge Turner would drop out of a congressional race in which Judge Turner had initially been a candidate, run for judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, and endorse Delegate Peña-Melnyk for the congressional seat; and, in turn, Delegate Peña-Melnyk would endorse Judge Turner for the judgeship.[7]

         While the ethics complaint was pending before the Commission, on April 21, 2016, a few days before the 2016 primary election, The Washington Post published an article, which included, in relevant part, the following information about Judge Turner:

The other challenger is veteran politician [] Turner, who dropped out of a crowded congressional race to compete for a judgeship, hoping to capitalize on her experience as a military lawyer and former member of the [Prince George's C]ounty [C]ouncil.
Turner, a former Prince George's County Council member, wants to reform the judicial system. "We need an eye toward rehabilitation and becoming more of a problem-solving court, " she said.
Turner, 52, was running for Congress when she learned about the court opening. The retired military attorney quickly changed gears.
For 20 years, the [United States] Naval Academy graduate served as legal counsel to admirals, administrative units[, ] and sailors. But she has little experience in local courts. She returned to Prince George's [County] after her 2006 retirement[, ] and was elected to two terms on the [C]ounty [C]ouncil.
Turner's detractors say [that] the politician is simply seeking secure employment - the job pays about $154, 000 a year - after she was term-limited and dropped out of the congressional race.
But Turner says she is running to educate voters that they have a choice when it comes to the judicial system.
"In 1986, they didn't want women at the [United States Naval A]cademy. Let alone a black woman, " she said. "When I ran in 2006 for [Prince George's] County Council, they said I wouldn't win because I wasn't in the politician pipeline. But the community rallied around me[, ] and told me I belonged."

         Arelis R. Hernández, A rare challenge in Maryland judge's race, Wash. Post, Apr. 21, 2016, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/a-rare-challenge-in- maryland-judges-race/2016/04/21/65468dfe-f513-11e5-9804-537defcc3cf6_story.html? utm_term=.feb4d1c8449f [https://perma.cc/5BGG-UA98].[8] In an affidavit that was later filed in the circuit court, Appellant averred that she "had no knowledge of [Judge] Turner's legal practice history until [T]he Washington Post['s] article[] dated April 21, 2016 had been published[, ] and [the Commission] was invest[igat]ing [Judge] Turner." (Record citation omitted).

         Over a year later, after the 2016 primary and general elections, the Commission responded to Appellant's ethics complaint against Judge Turner, who had assumed office. Specifically, in a letter dated April 26, 2017, the Commission stated that the ethics complaint against Judge Turner had been "reviewed and discussed by the Judicial Inquiry Board" and the Commission, and,

after the full and complete review of the materials and discussion by the Board and Commission, the Commission concluded that the evidence failed to show that Judge Turner committed sanctionable conduct, as defined [by] Maryland Rule 18-401([j]). As a result, the Commission dismissed the complaint, as required by Maryland Rule 18-406(a)(1).

         Proceedings in the Circuit Court

         On May 9, 2017, almost two weeks after the date of the Commission's letter, and more than six months after the 2016 general election, Appellant filed in the circuit court a "Petition for Writ of Mandamus and Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief" against Appellees, contending that Judge Turner was constitutionally unqualified for office because she allegedly had never practiced law in Maryland. Appellant requested that the circuit court issue a writ of mandamus ordering Governor Hogan to rescind Judge Turner's commission, as well as an order decertifying both Judge Turner's candidacy and the election results. In the petition, Appellant alleged that Judge Turner, as a military lawyer, had not practiced law in Maryland, and, accordingly, was not qualified to be a Maryland judge. In the petition, Appellant also contended that there was no prejudice or unreasonable delay in the timing of the filing of the petition. On May 22, 2017, Appellant filed an amended petition, raising the same allegations and seeking the same relief.

         Before any response by Appellees to the petition or the amended petition, on July 9, 2017, Appellant filed a motion for summary judgment and a memorandum of law. In the memorandum, Appellant contended that Judge Turner was constitutionally unqualified to be a judge in Maryland because she allegedly had not practiced law in Maryland, and argued that she (Appellant) was entitled to the commission for judgeship in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. Appellant asserted that the statute of limitations, EL § 12-202(b), was inapplicable, or, in the alternative, must be tolled. Appellant maintained that Judge Turner had committed fraud upon Maryland taxpayers to secure her salary as a judge, and that such fraud warranted tolling the statute of limitations. According to Appellant, she "was entirely justified in pursuing and awaiting disposition of her claims with [the Commission] because [Judge] Turner's lack of qualifications and prohibited political activity during the 2016 election cycle [were] so prejudicial to the administration of justice that it could have resulted in [Judge Turner's] removal." In the memorandum, Appellant contended that the doctrine of laches did not apply because there was neither prejudice nor inexcusable delay.

         In an "Affidavit in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, " Appellant averred, in relevant part, as follows:

[] I had no knowledge of [Judge] Turner's legal practice history until [T]he Washington Post['s] article[] dated April 21, 2016 had been published[, ] and [the Commission] was invest[igat]ing [Judge] Turner.
[] On April 29, 2017, I received notice from the [Commission] that my complaint against [Judge] Turner went through the full process[, ] but the [Commission] decided not to take action.
[] After receiving notice of disposition from [the Commission], I immediately verified [Judge] Turner's online official Maryland biographies and commenced this suit[.]

         (Record citations omitted).

         On July 21, 2017, Appellees filed a "Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Cross- Motion for Summary Judgment and Opposition to [Appellant]'s Motion for Summary Judgment, " contending that the election claims were barred in their "entirety by limitations and [the doctrine of] laches, " and, that the claims, "as a matter of law, " lacked merit. Appellees requested that the circuit court dismiss the amended petition, or, in the alternative, issue a declaratory judgment in their favor. In the motion to dismiss, in relevant part, Appellees argued that Appellant's claims, in which she challenged Judge Turner's qualifications as a candidate for judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, were election claims that were not filed within the statutory limitations period that was prescribed by EL § 12-202(b), and, as such, were barred.

         Appellees pointed out that Appellant waited to bring the election claims until more than a year after the 2016 primary election, and more than six months after the 2016 general election, which, "on its face, " demonstrated that the claims were untimely under EL § 12-202(b). Appellees also asserted that, in the affidavit in support of the motion for summary judgment, Appellant acknowledged seeing The Washington Post's article in April 2016, and, accordingly, Appellant "admittedly had knowledge of the alleged deficiency in qualifications by April 2016[.]" Appellees contended that filing the ethics complaint with the Commission concerning a judicial candidate's campaign conduct did not toll EL § 12-202(b) with respect to an election claim concerning a judicial candidate's qualifications. Appellees asserted that Appellant failed to demonstrate any ground on which to toll the statute of limitations because Appellant had not alleged "that she was somehow tricked or deceived into missing the deadline[, or] that the failure to meet the deadline was beyond her control."

         Appellees also contended that the election claims were barred by the doctrine of laches, and that claims challenging the qualifications of a judicial candidate must be promptly brought so that such claims can be resolved prior to an election. Appellees argued that the delay in bringing the election claims-more than six months after the general election-was inexcusable, and that the delay prejudiced Judge Turner, the State Board of Elections, the voters of Prince George's County, and the circuit court. Appellees asserted that, if Appellant were successful in bringing the election claims, and Judge Turner were disqualified and removed, voters who had voted for Judge Turner would be prejudiced by having their votes invalidated.

         On July 23, 2017, Appellant filed an opposition to the motion to dismiss, requesting that the circuit court grant summary judgment in her favor, declare the commission that Governor Hogan issued to Judge Turner to be void, and order Governor Hogan to issue the commission for judgeship in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County to Appellant.

         On September 8, 2017, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the motion for summary judgment and the motion to dismiss. During the hearing, as to The Washington Post's article, Appellant argued as follows:

I reported to [the] Commission[, ] and[, ] as soon as I reported my complaint[, it] started investigating. But it was maybe a few days before the primary [election] that [The] Washington Post['s] article came out[, ] outlining everyone's qualifications and criticizing [Judge] Turner for her motives [in] switching from the congressional race to the judge race[, ] and also criticizing her qualifications.
She has never practiced law. That is actually when I found out that she has never practiced law. And [I] actually started researching her bio[graphie]s on[]line, asking some people. No, she has never practiced law in this State.
But[, ] at that time[, ] I already had the ethics complaint pending.

         When asked by the circuit court why she did not file a complaint in the circuit court concerning Judge Turner's alleged lack of qualifications, in addition to the ethics complaint filed with the Commission, Appellant responded:

Well, I thought [that] it was best for the [] Commission to handle it. I mean, you know, as I said[, ] it was [Judge Turner's] lack of qualifications on top of the rules that she had breached, I thought bolster[ed] the ethics complaint. It made it more appropriate for the [] Commission to investigate and to take action than myself. It made more sense to me to wait for [the Commission] to do what the[] Constitution specially created [it] to do. So, I thought [that] it made sense to allow the [] Commission to act first.

         Appellant acknowledged that she "could have" pursued both actions simultaneously, but maintained that, "[i]f [she had] filed an ethics complaint against [Judge Turner, ] and [Judge Turner] could have been disqualified at any point in time by the [] Commission, [Judge Turner] was on notice that that could have happened."

         After hearing argument from the parties on the motion to dismiss, the circuit court orally granted the motion to dismiss, explaining that the petition was untimely filed under EL § 12-202(b) and that the doctrine of laches barred the election claims:

And[, ] in this case[, ] I can't get around the fact that[, ] while you filed the ethics complaint . . . with [the Commission, ] the Election Law Article clearly provided that you had to file within 10 days after the act or omission[, ] or within seven days after the election results were certified.
And[, ] even in the light most favorable to [Appellant], in the complaint, [she stated that she] didn't do it ...

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