Domestic Violence Bills Languish on Judiciary Panel

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Members of Maryland's defense bar don't just go to court to guard the rights of clients accused of domestic violence. Some of their biggest victories come in Room 101 of the House Office Building in Annapolis, where many victims' rights bills go to die.

After a year of several domestic slayings in Maryland, the General Assembly rebuffed efforts to force abuse suspects to give up their guns, to lengthen the term of protective orders, to deny paternity rights to rape suspects and to create a felony offense for setting a person on fire.

Some of those bills sailed through the Senate. But they were killed or left in a legislative drawer in Room 101, where the House Judiciary Committee meets.

The Maryland House of Delegates' rejection of those and other measures meant to enhance victims' rights underscores the power of the defense lawyers who dominate the committee, one of the legislature's most influential.

As a result, some Maryland laws are less favorable to domestic violence victims than those in other states, including Virginia, and in the District, legal experts say.

In Maryland, when victims go to court seeking a protective order, the standard of proof required is the highest in the country, and the duration of the order is among the shortest. Judges cannot immediately order abuse suspects to surrender their guns when victims seek protection. Rapists whose victims have a child have parental rights.

Victim advocates say the House Judiciary Committee has blocked significant changes to the laws.

"The committee has an underlying distrust of victims," said Tracy Brown, executive director of the Women's Law Center of Maryland. "A concern that women are making up these stories to get a leg up in a divorce. Certainly that can happen, but it's far from the majority of cases."

Lawyers on the committee who also rebuffed efforts a decade ago to stiffen penalties for drunk drivers say that what might appear to be good for victims is often an attack on defendants' civil liberties. They see themselves as bulwarks against the impulse to rewrite laws in response to emotionally wrenching crimes.

"The committee does not embrace every fad that comes along," said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), a defense lawyer on the panel.

The debate has continued in the past year, as a number of domestic killings in Maryland have received attention: Three Rockville children drowned in March during a custody dispute, and their father was charged in the deaths; a woman and three children were fatally shot in Damascus on Thanksgiving by the woman's ex-husband, who then shot and killed himself; and two Montgomery County children were hanged, apparently by their father, who then hanged himself.

The Judiciary Committee has been led since 1993 by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's), a lawyer with a criminal defense practice in Suitland. Vallario, 71, is the legislature's longest-serving committee chairman. He rarely votes on the 22-member committee, which includes 15 lawyers, 10 of whom practice criminal law. Six members are women, and several are non-lawyers who favor gun rights.

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