By Megha Rajagopalan and David L. Silverman
ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s highest court Thursday dealt the Democrat-led General Assembly a major blow, striking down a June law firing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s appointees to the state Public Service Commission.
In a 6-1 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the legislature overstepped its authority when it rushed through legislation last spring dismissing members of the PSC, which regulates the state’s major public utilities.
The ruling marked the third time since July in which a court struck down laws pushed through by Democrats in the General Assembly over the governor’s veto.
First, a federal judge in Baltimore overturned the so-called Wal-Mart bill requiring companies with more than 10,000 employees — as a practical matter, Wal-Mart only — to increase the amount of money spent on health care.
Then, an Anne Arundel County judge struck down the early voting bill which would have allowed voting to begin before Election Day. The ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals.
Both measures and the PSC firing bill ruled unconstitutional Thursday were passed, over Ehrlich’s veto, by the heavy Democratic majority in the General Assembly during this year’s highly partisan Election Year session.
In a written statement, Ehrlich praised the court’s decision, saying it would “protect the separation of powers in state government.”
But House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, called the ruling “a disappointment for consumers,” and Ehrlich’s Democratic opponent in the November election, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, promised that if he were elected he would fire the members of the PSC anyway.
“In this instance, the legislature acted in the best interest of the consumers,” Busch said in a meeting with reporters. “The Public Service Commission did not represent their best interest, but the best interest of the corporations.”
The law providing for the firing of the PSC members came after members of the legislature and the governor struggled all winter to find a solution to what were then scheduled to be increases of up to 72 percent in electric bills for over a million customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Ehrlich appointees to the PSC came under particular fire for being too close to the industry they regulated.
But, in its 126-page decision, the court said that the General Assembly was “free, if it wishes, to abolish or restructure the Public Service Commission, even if that causes in the incumbent commissioners to lose their offices.”
“What it may not do is to leave the agency more or less intact and simply fire the gubernatorial appointees it does not like by prematurely ending their terms and immediately replacing them with its own choices.”
The court called the law “an unconstitutional usurpation by the Legislature of an executive power.”
The lawsuit was brought by PSC Chairman Kenneth Schisler.
Schisler’s office referred reporters to Schisler’s lawyers, who called the decision a “vindication” of their argument that the law was unconstitutional.
After the ruling was issued late Thursday, O’Malley’s campaign issued a statement saying that “Bob Ehrlich and Ken Schisler may have won their case, but Maryland families, taxpayers and consumers lost. If I’m elected, I will fire Bob Ehrlich’s so-called ‘business-oriented’ Public Service Commission, and replace them with independent and competent members who will protect the public.”
Earlier, at debate between the two gubernatorial candidates in suburban Baltimore, O’Malley Ehrlich sparred over the issue of electric rates and the PSC.
“Nobody voted to turn your Public Service Commission into a utility profit commission,” O’Malley told about 250 people at a Timonium hotel. For his part, Ehrlich accused O’Malley of “demonization and pseudopopulism.”