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Assembly-watchers look for old fights to take on new heat in current session (80417)

Serene, tree-lined State Circle, at its best when snow and ice make the red bricks shimmer under the streetlamps, is about to become a hotbed of activity.[IMGCAP(1)]

Experienced Annapolis-watchers say that this, the 415th session of the General Assembly, will see the revival of several issues under debate in past years, such as the traditional push by plaintiffs’ lawyers for comparative fault and the usual opposition from the defense bar. But “predictable” doesn’t mean “peaceful.”

Gov. Parris N. Glendening will renew his effort to outlaw discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation, said the governor’s communications director, Mike Morrill. The bill will be part of a “justice, fairness and inclusion” initiative.

Glendening didn’t push the measure last session, but two years ago the governor (whose homosexual brother Bruce, a 19-year Air Force veteran, died of AIDS-related complications) strongly backed an anti-discrimination bill. The bill passed the House of Delegates, but failed to clear the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (JPR).

JPR is widely considered the most conservative committee in the legislature. Its chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Upper Eastern Shore, said recently that he and Glendening haven’t discussed the anti-discrimination bill, but he dreads having it referred to his committee again.

“I don’t see how that bill can come out of our committee if it’s the same as last time,” Baker said recently. “I almost had a rebellion; I’d just leave not have it, myself.”

Baltimore City, and Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s counties already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, but opposition to the statewide law is expected from those who are motivated by religion or their own personal preferences, and from smaller businesses.

Larger businesses, however, probably will not make a ruckus over the bill.

“I don’t think the law will have any significant impact on business,” said American Joe Miedusiewski, a former General Assembly member and one-time gubernatorial candidate who lobbies for more than 20 businesses, including electric cooperatives, convenience stores and lending institutions.

Another hot item will be a bill to abolish capital punishment.

Del. Salima Siler Marriott, D-Baltimore City, introduced a bill last session to place a two-year moratorium on executions. The moratorium would have halted executions pending the outcome of a $125,000 University of Maryland study that Glendening funded to see if race plays a role in capital cases. The moratorium bill died in the House Judiciary Committee (JUD) but stirred strong reactions among JUD members.

JUD member Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, announced that he plans to sponsor a bill to abolish the death penalty, according to press reports, but the bill is also likely to die in the Senate JPR.

“I know it’s not going to make its way out of my committee, if it even makes it that far, and I doubt it,” Baker said.Medical marijuana

Another JUD member, Del. Donald E. Murphy, R-Baltimore and Howard counties, won’t have to look very far to find someone to oppose the medical marijuana bill he plans to reintroduce.

Murphy expects that the bill, modeled after one he introduced last year, will draw fire from some of his closest friends and colleagues at JUD.

“This session is crucial, not so much in terms of results but in tone and tenor.” – Albert “Buz” Winchester III

Del. Carmen Amedori, R-Carroll, a strong gun rights advocate, and Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, sit at the same table as Murphy in the committee and were two of his strongest opponents during last year’s four-hour hearing on the bill.

“They think you ought to be able to smoke cigarettes anyplace you want, or carry concealed firearms,” Murphy said of O’Donnell and Amedori. “Well, I think you ought to be able to smoke marijuana as medicine.”

Murphy, who became committed to the issue of using marijuana to control pain after watching his father die of cancer in 1997, said he plans to use leftover campaign funds to finance radio and television ads to gain public support for his bill.Comparative negligence

The Maryland Trial Lawyers Association (MTLA), a group of lawyers who represent plaintiffs in personal injury cases, will push once again to make Maryland a comparative negligence state.

Maryland remains one of only four states in which the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit can’t recover if he contributed to the accident in any way, whereas other states allow juries to prorate fault, MTLA president Philip O. Foard said.

“I know we’ll go after comparative negligence again — it is the single most important thing for safety,” Foard said. “Look at the speeder with a Firestone tire that blows out. Firestone is 99 percent responsible, and they can say you were speeding and walk away because you are 1 percent responsible.”

The Maryland Defense Council (MDC), a group of defense lawyers, will fight the trial lawyers every step of the way.

“We don’t want to create a hostile environment for business,” said MDC lobbyist William A. Kress. “Going to comparative raises insurance costs dramatically — in Delaware they went up about 20 percent.”Making up for lost time

Finally, one lobbyist who keeps an eye on all issues that affect the legal profession said that he will be working to help restore a productive relationship between elected officials and state courts.

“This session is crucial, not so much in terms of results but in tone and tenor,” said Albert “Buz” Winchester III, director of legislative relations for the Maryland State Bar Association.

Last session saw a battle between the legislative and judicial branches after the Court of Appeals issued a decision striking down legislation on the basis that it violated the state constitution’s prohibition against putting more than a single subject in a bill. In response, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Calvert, threatened to create new judgeships in jurisdictions other than those requested by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

The upshot was that no new judgeships were created.

Winchester has talked with General Assembly leaders such as Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, and concluded that they and Bell want to focus on more productive issues this session.

“They do not want to have a fight,” Winchester said.

The judiciary will ask for 19 new judgeships this session. “We have been meeting with legislators, asking them not to have sticker shock,” he said.

While he anticipates a calmer session than last, Winchester worries that a rift between the legislature and the judiciary is possible, especially with emotions about courts and lawyers running high after the recent presidential election.

“If somebody gets up and starts saying, ‘I don’t like this opinion — we need to do something with the Court of Appeals,’ we may have a feeding frenzy,” Winchester said. “And I don’t want that to happen.”