The house Ways and Means Committee, under heavy pressure from lawyer-legislators, effectively killed a measure today its proponents said would reduce the fees Maryland attorneys charge to handle estates.
The 11-to-9 vote came on a motion that sent the probate bill to the Judiciary Committee, where similar proposals have repeatedly died in the past. "Reaslistically, of course, sending the bill to Judiciary is the same as killing the bill," said Del. David L. Scull (D-Montgomery), its leading sponsor. "It literally gets less than 10 seconds consideration [in Judiciary] each year."
The bill's opponents argued simply that the measure more properly belonged before the conservative committee headed by Del. Joseph E. Owens [D-Montgomery], whose distaste for passing new laws is lengendary.
The behind-the-scenes lobbying by lawyers in the legislature was described outside the committee meeting as intense, both by Scull and by the opposition's point man on the panel, Del. Paul E. Weisengoff (D-Baltimore).
"On the merits," Weisengoff said before today's meeting, "the attorneys on our committee are quite upset" about the bill. Other lawyer-legislators, he said, had also approached him on the subject. "They say, 'you're gonna kill the bill, aren't you?'"
Weisengoff said he was spearheading the opposition because "people I admire claim it's a bad bill." Asked if the lawyer-legislators weren't looking out for their own self-interest, Weisengoff, a schoolteacher, replied, "When I speak on education, I do so without self-interest.I don't think I should accuse him of doing something I don't do myself."
The bill quietly put to rest today would have required lawyers processing estates to charge hourly rates and to itemize services performed. The present practice allows for a maximum of 10 percent of the first $20,000 of an estate and 4 percent of amounts above that.
Scull, a lawyer and a gadfly to his profession, has sponsored such bills before, without success.
In this year's session, Scull managed to have the bill referred to his Ways and Means Committee by tacking on some related tax measures. After public hearings highlighted the issue, the proposal appeared to have a better chance of success.
Then it ran into Weisengoff, who wields considerable influence, at least in part through his close relationship with House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin.
"I think it ought to go someplace else besides Ways and Means because it's changing the whole probate system," he said. "We have enough to kill the bill outright," he said, predicting a "major floor fight" if the bill emerged from committee.
Opponents today sounded hosannas to the House of Delgeates' hallowed committee system. "There must be reasons why Judiciary always acted as it had in the past," said Del. Dennis McCoy (D-Baltimore), who is a lawyer. "It should always be remembered that committees become experts in a specific area. If the proposal has merit, I'm sure they'll consider it."