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Divorce, punishment and protest bills pass

The General Assembly ended its 2011 session last week having passed legislation pertaining to parting, punishment and protest.

One new measure will require a spouse who seeks a divorce over the other’s objection to live separate and apart from that person for only one year — rather than the current two-year condition — before filing for divorce.

Another bill will raise from five to 15 years the maximum sentence for someone found guilty of gun possession after having been convicted of a violent offense or felony drug crime.

And a third measure will require protesters at funerals or memorial services to stand at least 500 feet from mourners, as opposed to the current standard of 100 feet.

The protest measure, Senate Bill 977, was introduced in response to the Supreme Court’s March ruling that the Westboro Baptist Church had a First Amendment right to picket the 2006 Westminster memorial service of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder.

Snyder, 20, was killed when his vehicle overturned in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. Members of the Kansas-based church held signs up at his March 10, 2006, service proclaiming “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates Fags” and “You’re going to Hell” as part of its belief that God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality.

Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, an original co-sponsor of the bill, said a funeral is neither the time nor place for people to exercise their right to protest.

“You can chew gum in church,” said Gladden, D-Baltimore City. “The question is, should you?”

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s, joined Gladden in introducing the bill to keep protesters 500 feet away.

The divorce legislation, SB 139, eliminates the family-law category of “involuntary separation” — invoked when one spouse objects — and requires all no-fault divorcing couples to live apart for one year before the husband or wife can file for divorce.

The state’s separation requirement does not apply in cases of adultery, desertion, felony conviction, cruelty or excessively vicious conduct.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, the measure’s chief sponsor, said the two-year involuntary separation requirement enabled spiteful spouses to delay divorces out of anger or as a negotiating ploy to get a soon-to-be-ex to surrender the house or the car.

“It served no real purpose other than to keep volatile situations going,” added Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “It became bargaining leverage.”

Zirkin called the measure “a good first step” toward his goal of reducing to six months the state’s current pre-divorce separation requirement of one year.

House Bill 241 will change the current law, which imposed both a minimum and maximum prison sentence of five years for ex-cons found guilty of gun possession.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger praised the measure, saying prison sentences of more than five years are often more appropriate for convicted felons with a gun.

He said the assured penalty of five years under current law has created a disincentive for defendants to plead guilty because the punishment is known and non-negotiable.

“Most good lawyers and defendants are going to ask for a trial because they have nothing to lose” under the five-year maximum standard, Shellenberger said.

But extending the potential punishment to 15 years gives prosecutors negotiating leverage to strike plea bargains, he added.

Gov. Martin O’Malley is expected to sign the three measures into law soon. The laws would go into effect Oct. 1.

Failed legislation

Legislation that did not pass this session included HB 765, which would have required the Attorney Grievance Commission’s unspent annual revenue to go to Maryland’s general fund rather than remain with the disciplinary body. If that proposal had become law, the AGC’s nearly $8 million surplus as of June 30 would have gone to the state treasury, as would have any future annual surpluses.

The Maryland Judiciary opposed the bill — which was eventually withdrawn — saying the state lacks authority over the commission’s money. The money is raised not through taxes but via annual dues that the state’s top court, the Court of Appeals, assesses on Maryland’s approximately 34,500 attorneys, the Judiciary said.

Also withdrawn was HB 1129, which would have codified Maryland’s common-law ban on plaintiffs in personal injury cases from recovering damages if they were partially at fault.

Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, D-Montgomery, said the bill he sponsored was prompted by a sign that the Court of Appeals is considering a switch to a comparative fault standard that would let plaintiffs recover when they share some of the blame for their injuries.

That signal came in November when the high court asked its rules committee if the contributory negligence standard could be changed by rule, or only by a judicial decision that overturns the longstanding precedent. The Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure has responded that a change could not be made via a rule.

The Maryland Association for Justice, an organization of plaintiffs’ attorneys, opposed codification of contributory negligence, which absolutely bars a plaintiff’s recovery. Maryland Defense Counsel supported codification of a standard that eliminates a defendant’s liability in civil litigation when the plaintiff is partially at fault.