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State's Attorney a demanding job, but not without its rewards

June 11, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

For the first time in nearly two decades, M. Kenneth Long won't be in the race for State's Attorney of Washington County.

That's because the 58-year-old Hagerstown native now is now a judge on the Washington County Circuit Court bench. But because he served as the chief prosecutor here for 23 years, I felt he would have a few insights about that job and what it requires.

I knew going in I wouldn't get to do the sort of interview I really wanted to do. Questions such as "What kind of temperament would best suit someone for the job?" were out. That's because the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct (Rule 16-813, Canon 5) clearly says that "a judge who is not a candidate for election or re-election to or retention in a judicial office shall not engage in any partisan political activity."

So asking what sort of personality a candidate would need to do the state's attorney's job was clearly out. But Judge Long was able to tell me about the job he had done and how the office had changed in the more than 20 years he held the job.

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He began work as a part-time assistant state's attorney in April of 1979, then ran for the office and won in November of 1982.

"When I ran for state's attorney in 1982, a good friend of mine, an attorney, sat me down and told me I should do this for one term, possibly two and then quit. Obviously I ignored his advice, because I felt we were making a contribution," he said.

When Long first took office, his department's quarters were four rooms on the third floor of the Washington County Courthouse Annex. At the time, the staff consisted of himself, two or three part-time assistants and four or five support people.

By 2004, when he was appointed to the District Court bench, the office had been moved several times and grown to 35 employees, including 12 full-time attorneys, two part-time attorneys and a large support staff.

"The growth in the office was really due to the increased number of cases and the increased complexity of the issues we faced," he said.

For example, Judge Long said, the office's victim-witness services function has grown from one to five persons, in part because of state legislation mandating new services.

And then in 1986, the judge said that then-Assistant State's Attorney Andrew Norman proposed, with the cooperation of local police, the creation of a Narcotics task Force.

"Now there are two full-time attorneys in the Narcotics Task Force and two administrative people," he said.

Then, Judge Long said, Dave Engle, director of the local department of Social Services, suggested setting up a local Child Advocacy Center, "in response to the (child-abuse) statistics that everybody sees."

Among other things, the center provides a child-friendly setting where many professionals - prosecutors, police, social workers and the like - can interview the victim once, instead of forcing him or her to undergo several traumatic sessions.

So it's clear that today's state's attorney has to be an administrator as much as a courtroom lawyer. Judge Long said it took a while to get accustomed to the idea of not going to court as often as he once had.

"I recognized that I had quality people and I started doing less of the serious prosecutions and I encouraged others to be in court," he said, adding that while he continued to go once or twice a month, much of the day-to-day litigation was left to others.

He never seems to have lost the drive to stay on top of what was happening. Toward the end of his tenure there, he said he spent a lot of time reviewing much of the paperwork that came through the office.

But although his formal day started at 8 a.m. and ended in the early evening, Judge Long said he was seldom, if ever, completely off the job.

"I carried a pager and two cell phones. My rule with the police was that if there was a homicide or a major vehicle crash, I wanted to be notified," he said.

Being on the scene was important, he said, because "one picture's worth 1,000 words and sometimes it was important to offer suggestions to police and there were search warrants that would have to be reviewed and signed."

Another important segment of the state's attorney's job is to listen, Judge Long said.

"Part of the job, I think, is dealing with people who are in a lot of pain. While we don't represent the (victim), it's important to help the person through the system. For a lot of people, the criminal-justice system is just a mystery," he said.

Helping people to navigate that system sometimes means telling people about the strengths and weaknesses of a case.

"A state's attorney's job is not just to be an advocate, but to see that prosecutions are done in a fair and just manner," he said.

"That's the nature of what we do, to be ethical about the job. I can remember dismissing some murder charges. I didn't like it, but those situations will arise," Judge Long said.

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