For the last few years, Foley Ford, an auto dealership situated along a rural strip of Rte. 301 near Upper Marlboro, has given free use of one of its cars to Prince George's state Sen. Thomas V. Miller. In exchange, Miller, a county lawyer, has done legal work for the car agency.
This year, in his role as a state legislator, Miller introduced a bill that would allow Foley Ford to challenge the opening of any other Ford dealership within 10 miles of its lot. A state transportation official would hear the case and could block the new dealership if Foley could show that Ford sales and service in the area were adequate.
Miller, whose bill would affect the establishment of car dealerships statewide, says that he drafted the measure at the request of automobile lobbyists, not Foley executives, and that his representation of the company is but a minor part of his practice.
The car dealership bill nonetheless exemplifies how the 47 lawyers in the 188-member Maryland General Assembly often devote their public service to matters that benefit their personal livelihood.
An examination of bills sponsored by the lawyers in Annapolis this session revealed more than 50 measures that would help their clients, their own law practices, the courts and agencies before which they appear or their profession as a whole. Of the 25 bills sponsored by Del. Joel Chasnoff, a lawyer in Montgomery County, for example, 15 would somehow affect his profession.
Virtually all the measures pushed by lawyers are sent first to House and Senate judiciary committees which are dominated by members of the fraternity. Over the decades, it has been the lawyers on these committees who have crafted the intricate fabric of fees, commissions, laws and regulations from which the legal community has prospered.
The lawyer-legislators here are fully aware of their power -- "We're kind of unique in that we can create new business for ourselves," said Del. James Lighthizer of Anne Arundel county -- but they contend that their apparent conflicts of interest are the necessary trade-off for the specialized knowledge they can bring to a part-time legislature.
"Look," said Sen. Laurence Levitah (D-Montgomery), "the doctors vote on the doctors' bills and the bankers vote on the bankers' bills, and we vote on lawyers' bills. That's the way it is. We're a part-time legislature, and almost everyone down here has some kind of legislation that brings their expertise into play. If the citizens don't like the way someone votes, they can throw him out of office."
What follows in an account of how and why the lawyers have merged their public and private interest in the legislature. Expanding and Protecting
Del. Kenneth Masters, a lawyer from Baltimore County, and his law partner are on a list kept by the state Health Claims Arbitration Office of attorneys who can be appointed to the three-member arbitration panels that hear malpractice cases.
Masters' partner currently is on one of those panels and hearing a case. He is concerned, said Masters, that he might be sued for the work he is doing if one of the parties in the case becomes upset. To ease his partners' fears, Masters has introduced a bill that would give members of the arbitration panels -- including himself and his partner -- immunity from suits for "any official act made during their tenure on the panel."
Another delegate, lawyer Joseph Vallario of Prince George's County, has sponsored a measure that would allow property buyers to take over a mortgage at the same interest rate that the seller originally negotiated with the bank.
Vallario calls his bill a "consumer" measure because it would allow home buyers to obtain loans with the lower interest rates that prevailed years before they were ready to buy. At the same time, however the measure could profit Vallario above and beyond the average home buyer. As an attorney, he handles settlement work for land transactions, which theoretically would increase under the bill. He has also made a fortune outside his law practice by buying and selling homes and land.
"I'm not at all interested in it for myself," said Vallario. "I put it in for the consumer. It will make it easier to sell homes."
In other instances, the connection of a lawyer's bill to consumers is more tenuous -- or nonexistent.
A measure sponsored by Del. Theodore Levin, a Baltimore county lawyer, would result in increased fees for some attorneys who do property title research. Levin said he drafted the measure at the request of a county attorney who does such work, but that he refers his own title research to other lawyers.
Del. Dennis McCoy, a lawyer in Baltimore, is promoting a bill that would require hospitals to turn over complete patient records to anyone who pays for them. McCoy, who is private practice handles many personal injury damage cases, explained that some hospitals will not turn over patient records to lawyers unless a suit has been filed.
McCoy said he introduced the bill on behalf of a fellow attorney who had difficulty obtaining such records when he was considering filing a damage suit. His measure, the delegate added, would help all attorneys working on such cases.
Several other lawyers who handle damage suits in cases of personal injuries have sponsored bills that would make it easier for them to collect from insurace companies, or would increase the likelihood of high damage awards. In most cases, the lawyer in a damage suit received a commission of one-third of the award.
One measure, proposed by Del. Louis DePazzo, a Baltimore County lawyer, would allow persons to recover damages for negligence by another person even if they were found at trial to be partly responsible for their own injury. "I guess you could call it a lawyers bill," DePazzo said, adding that he sometimes handles personal injury cases.
Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, a Prince George's lawyer, is pushing a bill that would allow attorneys like himself to appeal in damage cases where a jury awards a high amount of damages but a judge later lowers the sum. Under the current law, a judge's reduction of damages cannot be appealed unless the entire case is retried. Most lawyers are thus forced to settle for the lower amount, sometimes costing them thousands of dollars in commissions.
O'Rielly said he has found himself in this predicament several times.
The Prince George's senator is sponsoring another measure that could further increase the number of damage cases he sursues, and thus add to his commissions. This legislation would allow children to collect expensive damage awards for the wrongful death of their parents, regardless of the children's age. Current law allows such awards only for children aged 18 or younger.
There are bills similar to O'Reilly's in other areas. Vallario and Chasnoff have introduced a bill that would make it easier to obtain no-fault divorces in Maryland. Chasnoff, who handles many divorce cases, said the bill was in part aimed at keeping spouses from going to courts and lawyers outside Maryland where divorces are obtained more easily.
Another Chasnoff bill demonstrates how lawyers draft legislation to change laws that have stymied them in their private practice.
The Montgomery lawyer is now defending a man who was charged by police with driving while intoxicated. The police officer who arrested the man charged that he has refused to take a chemical test determining the alcohol content in his blood -- an offense that can result in the suspension or revocation of a driver's license.
In this case, Chasnoff explained, his client contended that he had not refused to take the alcohol test. But the officer had checked a standard form indicating that the test had been denied. Chasnoff's client thus nearly lost his license before his driving-while-intoxicated case came to trial.
As a result, Chasnoff has intoruced a bill requiring that police officers, rather than simply checking off a form, from now on take the time to draft a handwritten statement explaining that a suspect refused to take an alcohol test.
"This is an example of how we can bring attention to problems we have experiecned," said Chasnoff. "These are things that I feel are helping to create a better system. It's more management analysis than benefiting the defense attorneys." Helping Judges and Agencies
Last year, a group of Frederick County invesotrs hired Sen. Levitan to help them obtain a $3.2 million mortgage from the state's Community Development Administration for a subsidized apartment project. The loan was granted last September, and Levitan received a total of $12,000 in fees from his clients.
Five months later, the same state officials who awarded the loan to Levitan's clients, decided they needed a bill in the legislature that would enable them to take part in a new federal program through which they could offer lower interest rates on mortgages.
But the deadline for state agencies drafting, reviewing and introducng their own measures had, by that time, passed. So, after clearing the bill with the governor's office, the agency officials took their measure directly to Levitan, who was able to introduce it under his own sponsorship.
Levitan is the chairman of the Senate committee that will hear the bill. Thus, within a period of months, he will have served first as private supplicant, then public advocate, then judge of the same state agency.
This situation is not unusual for the lawyers of Annapolis. Many of them regularly argue before state boards and commissions, whose budgets they control, and some of them sponsor bills changing the regulations they must follow as lawyers.
In this session of the legislature, more than a half-dozen bills affecting the state workmen's compensation board have been introduced by lawyers who represent workers seeking disability payments for job-related injuries. A measure by Chasnoff would double the membership of the medical board for workers' compensation and slightly change the requirements for members' qualifications.
In addition, lawyers are sponsoring at least four bills that would increase the salaries or pensions of judges before whome the attorneys argue cases. The lawyers who introduced these bills -- McCoy, O'Reilly and Del. Arthur Alperstein (D-Baltimore County) -- said they put the measures in at the request of judges.
The lawyers said the salary bills would have no affect on their own cases, although one added: "The only way it helps you in when you call one of the judges to ask for a continuance [delay] in one of the your cases, or something." Helping Clients
In addition to Miller's help for Foley Ford, one other Prince George's legislator, Del. Gerard F. Devlin, sponsored a bill this session that would have allowed the Prince George's County Education Association -- a teachers' union for which he does legal work -- to require county teachers to pay union dues.
Devlin, who sponsored, a similar "agency shop" bill last year, withdrew his name from the legislation after the possible conflict was publicized. He then filed a series of statements with the legislature's ethics committee detailing the legal work he does that might appear to conflict with his votes on some bills.
These statements, known as "disclaimers," are often used by lawyers to get an official stamp of approval for their work on measures that could help them or their clients.
In one case last year Sen. O'Reilly sponsored a bill at the request of one of his clients, a New York shopping center developer. The bill would have broadened a state loan program to allow the developer to receive state-backed, low-interest loans for shopping centers built in the state.
On the day the bill was heard in committee, O'Reilly delivered a letter to the ethics board that noted that if his client "continues his present activity in the state . . . he may very well benefit in the future.
"Nevertheless," O'Reilly's statement concluded, "in spite of this apparent conflict of interest I am at this time asserting that I am able to vote and otherwise participate in legislative activity (on the bill) fairly, objectively and in the public interest." The Committee Work
Last year, Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore City) sponsored a bill that would have allowed judges to reduce lawyer's contractual fees in cases where they were found to be unfair. The measure passed the Senate, but died quickly in the House Judiciary Committee, where 14 of the 23 members are lawyers.
Every year since 1971, law enforcement interests on that same committee have backed bills aimed at reducing the number of cases that are appealed from the state's district courts, arguing that such appeals make lots of money for lawyers but are often unnecessary. Every year, the bills have died.
And this year, one of the first bills to be killed by the House committee, by a unanimous vote, was a proposal by Del. John Quade (D-Charles) that would have allowed many more lawyers to being practicing in the state. Quade, who attended law school but never took the bar exam, suggested that Maryland citizens be allowed to practice law without a bar exam after completing a certain number of courses in law school.
Incidents such as these have convinced some legislators that the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where five of eight members are lawyers, are too often swayed in the interest of the legal profession.
Lawyers on the committees rarely hesitate before voting on bills that might affect their practices. "We vote on so many bills that pertain to the court system, that if we abstained on every one that might affect us, we wouldn't have a committee," said Chasnoff, a House committee member. "It's not a problem. No one has ever called us on it."
"The problem of conflict is not that big from the financial point of view," says Del. Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery), the chairman of House Judiciary. "But maybe it's a philosophical slant after a while. When you're an attorney dealing with the system for a few years, you develop pretty strong feelings about things."
Owens and the other attorneys on the committee said that the bills they killed that have been proposed by law enforcement or antilawyer interests were bad ones. He pointed to other bills the committee has approved that might work against interest of lawyers.
But some committee members think that private lawyers have too much say in the two committees on legal bills. "The defense attorneys vote their own way, because they think in terms of how it will affect their practice and because of the perspective their training gives them," said Del. Elmer Hagner (D-Anne Arundel), who was a police chief before he joined the legislature.
"I think the General Assembly overall has too many attorneys, and it gives a lopsided effect to legislation," Hagner said. "We need more bricklayers and painters and people to represent the common citizen."