GOP Suit Challenging Tax Hikes Dismissed

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008

A Maryland judge dismissed a legal challenge yesterday from Republican lawmakers who sought to overturn $1.4 billion in state tax increases but took Democratic leaders to task for what he called the "reprehensible nature" of the procedures it used in the special session in November.

In a 21-page ruling, Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Thomas F. Stansfield dismissed the GOP contention that record-keeping errors made by legislative staff should result in the tax legislation being nullified.

"Although there has clearly been an egregious lack of judgment on the part of the Offices of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Delegates regarding their conduct in failing to abide by constitutionally mandated procedures, there is ultimately no merit to the Plaintiffs' arguments," Stansfield wrote.

The case centered on Republican lawmakers' allegations that Democratic leaders in the legislature did not follow constitutional guidelines in the three-week special session. The GOP lawmakers argued that the Senate adjourned for more than three days -- Nov. 9 through 15 -- during a slow period of the session without obtaining proper permission from the House.

Yesterday's ruling effectively closes a lawsuit that worsened partisan tensions this week as the General Assembly convened for its 90-day session.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said they are pleased with Stansfield's decision in what they described as a frivolous, partisan lawsuit.

"It's like negative campaigning," Miller told reporters yesterday, his voice loud and angry. "People just throw [stuff] up against the wall, and unfortunately some of it sticks."

Miller criticized Stansfield's use of harsh language regarding the General Assembly's procedures.

"The judge tried to split the baby in half, but he couldn't split the constitution," Miller said.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil), one of the plaintiffs, called the ruling a "strongly worded reprimand."

"Everybody wondered would the judge actually put the ultimate remedy and stop everything," Smigiel said. "For a circuit court judge to do that would be a lot to expect."

Smigiel said Republican lawmakers will meet today to decide whether to appeal.

Miller took aim at the text of Stansfield's ruling, and his office circulated a list of what it said were nine factual errors in the opinion.

The state attorney general's office has had to use significant resources to defend the General Assembly, Busch said.

"This is, in my estimation, one of the biggest wastes of taxpayer dollars I've ever seen here," Busch said.

He added that the suit caused "emotional and mental strain" for legislative staffers, one of whom testified in depositions.

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