The county's Democratic Central Committee meets in North Bethesda on Dec. 13. Credit: Steve Bohnel

The state attorney’s general office said the Montgomery County’s Democratic Central Committee can make a rule change to update its legislative vacancy process — a topic that has been debated heavily in recent weeks as one delegate in District 14 will vacate his seat next month. 

Eric Luedtke is resigning his seat in January to take a position in Gov.-elect Wes Moore’s administration. Liza Smith, one of the central committee members, has worked with her colleagues to try to implement a rule change that would require a committee member to resign by the filing deadline for a legislative vacancy, should any one occur. 

At a meeting on Tuesday, the committee discussed that proposal, but almost all of the members said that the rule change should be referred to the body’s rules committee. The committee also said that the decision merits further legal review by the state’s Democratic Party and Attorney General’s office. 

When asked about the legality of the rule change Smith and others are proposing, Raquel Coombs — a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office — wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday: “Essentially we have advised that State law does not prohibit a central committee from having a rule that a central committee member is not eligible for appointment to a legislative vacancy.”

Jim Michaels, who was recent chair of the rules committee within the MCDCC and is an attorney, declined to comment Wednesday, saying he needed more time to review the attorney general office’s findings and advice.

Arthur Edmunds, the immediate prior chair of the entire MCDCC, or Saman Qadeer Ahmad, who was elected chair Tuesday, could not immediately be reached for comment via two phone calls or an email.

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Sarah Brand-Wiita, a committee member who introduced the legislative vacancy rule change for discussion on Tuesday, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat: “Speaking just for myself: Last night was a win for appointment reform. Bringing a proposal to the floor is the first step in enacting any rules change. The Rules Committee must now take the issue up without further delays. Reformers will keep fighting to bring small-d democracy to our appointment process, and we’re going to do it right.”

She added: “I appreciate the advice from the AG’s office on the MCDCC’s authority over the appointment process. I look forward to working with my MCDCC colleagues to advance reforms that dot the i’s, cross the t’s, and most importantly, ensure that the Democratic Party truly lives up to its name.”

Coombs also provided multiple letters of advice to Bethesda Beat, that answer questions on similar topics. In one of the letters, penned by Assistant Attorney General Robert Zarnoch in 1993 to then-House Speaker Clayton Mitchell, Jr., Zarnoch addressed the broader questions of whether the legislative vacancies can be filled by committees via roll call or secret ballot votes, and whether committee members can vote for themselves for any legislative vacancy.

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Zarnoch wrote that because committee members are party officers, not public officers, they can vote for themselves.  

“It is also my understanding that, in the past, some central committee members in filling legislative vacancies have voted for themselves,” Zarnoch wrote. “While such a history is not conclusive on the point, no statute or common law rule clearly prevents such voting. And, absent an applicable party rule or by-law prohibiting it, a central committee member appears not to be barred from voting to nominate himself or herself to fill a legislative vacancy.”

One Court of Special Appeals opinion from 1992, Neimann v. Schaefer, was cited in multiple letters of advice.

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Part of that opinion states the following about the above questions and other similar ones: “”[T]hese kinds of disputes are quintessentially political in nature and some deference ought to be given to the political process and to the party’s construction and enforcement of its Constitution and by-laws that principally govern that process.”

The deadline for District 14 candidates to apply for the vacancy is 5 p.m. Dec. 16.