LEGISLATION THAT would bring Maryland in line with every other state in the nation in protecting victims of domestic abuse has the strong backing of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). It sailed through the state Senate last week with unanimous approval. But to become law, the much-needed fix has to clear the considerable hurdle of getting out of the House Judiciary Committee. It is anyone’s guess if that will occur.
The committee will hold hearings on legislation that would establish a more reasonable burden of proof for domestic violence victims seeking civil protective orders. Instead of the current standard that requires clear and convincing evidence, petitioners would have to show only a preponderance of evidence.
All 49 other states and the District of Columbia employ the preponderance of evidence standard, which is the very same standard that Maryland courts employ for most other civil actions. State Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he decided to take the lead in sponsoring the legislation this year after hearing about women going to the District after they were denied relief in Maryland. Maryland court records show 1,777 cases in 2012 in which victims were denied orders because they couldn’t meet the standard of proof.
The measure has a high profile this year thanks to Mr. Frosh and the O’Malley administration championing it. Advocates for the legislation are cautiously optimistic, but they know the real battle lies in the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Del. Joseph F. Vallario (D-Prince George’s). The committee, populated by members of the defense bar, has proven to be the traditional killing ground for reforms sought by victims groups. When similar legislation was introduced four years ago, the committee caused controversy with its insensitive treatment of a woman whose three children were killed after she couldn’t obtain a protective order against her estranged husband.
Fallout from the controversy and change in membership on the committee may help the bill’s prospects this session. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), instrumental in killing the measure four years ago, told us he might be willing to support it if it were accompanied by legislation that would allow subjects of protective orders to seek to shield their records under certain circumstances. Mr. Simmons’s proposal should be debated and decided on its own merits rather than be used as a bartering chip in the effort to bring Maryland out of the cold in providing reasonable protections for vulnerable people.
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