MARYLAND HAS long had the dubious distinction of being the only state that imposes a rigid burden of proof for victims of domestic abuse to receive a civil protection order. Past efforts to change the outdated law never got very far in a hidebound legislature, and advocates became so discouraged that they didn’t even raise the matter in recent years.
But prospects for reform may be different in the just-convened Maryland General Assembly, with the chairman of a key Senate committee taking the lead in introducing legislation and an election year renewing attention on domestic violence issues.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a candidate for attorney general, is sponsoring legislation that would establish a more reasonable burden of proof for victims seeking protection orders. The bill would change the standard from clear and convincing evidence to the preponderance of evidence. That’s the same standard Maryland courts use for most other civil actions, including tort actions involving large damage awards and decisions about divorce and child custody. Judges would still be able to assess the credibility of claims but would have more flexibility in affording needed protections to victims of domestic abuse.
Mr. Frosh told us the hurdles of the current law hit home when he heard that women who were denied protective orders were going to the District, which uses the preponderance-of-evidence standard, in desperation to get relief. “We should be making victims feel safe,” he said, “not making them beg for help.” In 2012, there were 1,777 cases in which victims were unable to meet the burden of proof, according to Maryland’s administrative office of the courts.
Mr. Frosh expressed confidence that the reform will pass in the Senate, but the real obstacles lie in the House of Delegates, notably its Judiciary Committee. It killed similar legislation when it was last proposed in 2010. Not even the wrenching testimony of a woman whose three children were drowned after she couldn’t obtain a protective order against her estranged husband could convince the committee of the need for change. The callous, if not hostile, treatment of Amy Castillo brought justifiable criticism to the committee and its chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), but it remains to be seen whether lawmakers have learned from their mistakes.
Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), who led the effort to kill the bill four years ago, told us he might be open to the change and has some ideas for “compromise” that he plans to discuss with Mr. Frosh. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Simmons is seeking election to the Senate and is locked in a primary battle with former delegate Cheryl Kagan in which women and domestic violence issues are sure to be a focus.
Maryland’s law governing protective orders is a relic. Not only is there a need to change the evidentiary standard but requirements for permanent protective orders also need to be eased and relief expanded to victims of sexual assault and dating violence. We urge lawmakers to finally take action.