Justice and Fairness - Annapolis Report

At the three week mark of this legislative session, we are only five weeks from my wife's due date. It is amazing how quickly everything is moving amidst the excitement of a new addition to our family. Meanwhile, here in Annapolis, a mere 300 bills have been introduced thus far in the House. As you can imagine, it is in the first and fourth years of a term where record numbers of bill are introduced. The first year because everyone's excited to get started, and the fourth year because everyone is running for re-election. My legislative director has appropriately suggested that I focus this week's Report on three current issues of justice and fairness that will be addressed during the 2012 session: the rights of criminal defendants, campaign finance reform, and marriage equality.

First, as some of you may be aware, the Court of Appeals recently ruled criminal defendants are entitled to legal representation at bail hearing. Historically, these pre-trial bail hearings are held in secret, and Maryland courts had previously held that the right to counsel did not apply at pre-trial bail hearings. Let me give you my rationale for why I think this decision to require counsel at all hearings is a good one:

When a criminal defendant is unrepresented, bail is often set at a prohibitively high level, forcing the accused to remain in jail oftentimes for more than thirty days, interfering with employment and personal issues and costing the state significant dollars. The fact is that when individuals are represented by lawyers, they are 2.5 times more likely to be released on their own recognizance or receive a more affordable bail. As such, one's wealth is determinative of their treatment by the criminal justice system, even before appearing at trial.

Furthermore, fewer people in jail means serious cost savings. More than 170,000 people appear at these hearings every year; if just one-sixth of these people were released on their own recognizance instead of thrown in jail for a mandatory 30 day period, $85,000,000 could be saved in incarceration costs alone.

Finally, we as a society are committed to basic fairness, especially when a person's freedom is at issue. A lawyer's presence at these initial hearings ensures that the criminal defendant and the government are on a level playing field. Moreover, this decision improves community relations; when people feel that the system is giving them a fair shake, they may be more likely to cooperate with law enforcement. It also reduces the population of already overcrowded prisons, and frees up prosecutorial resources to pursue violent offenders.

One of my colleagues has introduced legislation to repeal the law that is the basis for this Constitutional decision. This bill would tip the scales of justice against these individuals, who may not understand their rights or be able to advocate effectively for themselves. I will monitor this closely to make sure equal protection for everyone, even the indigent, prevails.

As I shared in my previous Report, last week I joined concerned citizens, Congressmen John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen, and other Members of the General Assembly in a rally on Lawyers' Mall here in Annapolis to support a Constitutional Amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United. This infamous decision has opened the floodgates of unregulated campaign spending, allowing secretive “Super PACs” to spend unlimited funds in support of candidates without disclosing from where their money comes. Just look at what Newt and Mitt are doing to each other and think about what is coming in the Fall.

Several hours after the rally, and unbeknownst to his nephew, Senator Ben Cardin announced that he is co-sponsoring Senator Tom Udall's Constitutional Amendment to reverse this unfounded decision. This effort has gained momentum nationally, with numerous rallies and legislation introduced calling for the amendment. It's encouraging to see voters engaged in this issue, and politicians responding.

Recognizing this decision's corrosive effect on our politics, more than 55 Members of the Maryland General Assembly have already signed a letter to Congress in support of the Amendment. I hope Congress will pass this Amendment as quickly as possible to take back control of our electoral system from secretive campaign contributors.

Meanwhile, here in Maryland, my bill to implement a public financing system for General Assembly elections remains our best protection against the threat of secretive campaign financing. With dozens of co-sponsors, we are ready to make true campaign finance reform a reality. Please continue to share your support for this legislation with all of my colleagues, and stay tuned for further updates on its progress.

Legislation to grant marriage equality to all Marylanders will come before the General Assembly again this legislative session. On Monday, Governor O'Malley announced the inclusion of the Civil Marriage Protection Act of 2012 as part of his legislative agenda this session. This year's bill clarifies that religious groups have exclusive control of theological practices and doctrines and protects religious organizations' choice not to perform same-sex marriages. I believe this iteration of the marriage equality bill strikes an appropriate balance between equal protection and freedom of religion.

I remain committed to achieving equal protection under the law for all Marylanders in every facet of our lives. Last year, I had the opportunity to host a group from Equality Maryland for an evening before taking the floor of the General Assembly to advocate in favor of granting all citizens in Maryland the full measure of respect, clarity, and security provided by civil marriage. Although the Senate voted favorably, unfortunately the House bill fell short by a handful of votes and was therefore not brought to the floor.

With the backing of Governor O'Malley and the continued support of the public, momentum to pass marriage equality is growing. Thank you to those of you on all sides of the issue who have shared your thoughts civilly and respectfully. Stay tuned.

Congratulations to Owings Mills High School seniors Cara Mazor and Max Siskin for winning the Maryland Invitational Moot Court Championship, and a belated congratulations to Eagle Scouts Nathan Abraham Lawless and Sam Hunter Wallace for achieving such an esteemed honor. Please wish me and the 15,000 other crazies good luck with the Polar Plunge as we raise money for Special Olympics Maryland. (We lucked out with this warm weather!) Finally, the Ravens gave it their all. I hope our other birds, the O's, will cheer us up in April. One can only hope….

Delegate Jon S. Cardin