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Top court to decide if controversial ‘Dream Act’ can be put to vote

An immigrant-rights group’s bid to block a referendum on the Maryland Dream Act is not over yet.

The state’s top court has revived Casa de Maryland’s quest to keep the question off the November ballot, agreeing to review a judge’s ruling that the legislation can be put to a popular vote.

The Court of Appeals has scheduled arguments for June 12.

The Dream Act, which Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law last May, permits undocumented students to receive in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities if they graduate from a public high school, complete 60 community college credits and prove their parents paid state taxes for the past three years.

Because the Dream Act deals with a public benefit and educational funding, Casa de Maryland argues that it is an appropriations measure that is not subject to referendum.

Kim Propeack, Casa de Maryland’s political director, voiced confidence that the group’s argument against the referendum will prevail, either in the court of law or of public opinion.

“In the unlikely scenario that the litigation fails, we believe that the majority of Maryland voters will be convinced of the merits of the legislation and the importance of education,” Propeack said Wednesday. “These are Maryland kids who have grown up in our schools, who play on our local basketball teams and love the O’s as much as anyone.”

Within days of the Dream Act’s passage in the General Assembly last year, the measure spurred a petition drive led by a group called The petition stops the law from taking effect.

“We believe it violates the federal immigration law, which prohibits the aiding and abetting of illegal immigrants,” said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, the group’s honorary chairman. “It displaces American citizens, young people, from slots that would be available” at Maryland state colleges and universities, he said.

The group’s petition drive succeeded in getting 108,923 signatures from Maryland voters, nearly twice the 55,736 required to bring the law to a referendum on Election Day, Nov. 6, according to the State Board of Elections.

McDonough said a high-court decision preventing the referendum “would be looked upon by the people as removing their right to vote on an issue that is very important.”

But state Sen. Victor R. Ramirez said the embattled law he sponsored will ensure that college-age children of illegal immigrants are not punished for the sins of their parents, who, though here illegally, have paid taxes to the state.

“We live in an ever-changing society and unfortunately we have children who are in a situation through no fault of their own,” Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, said Wednesday. “It’s not a handout; it’s just an opportunity to continue [their] education.”

Judicial Watch, a self-described conservative legal advocacy group, is representing before the Court of Appeals.

The Office of the Maryland Attorney General is defending the board of elections’ approval of the referendum at the high court.

Casa de Maryland first fought the petition drive by challenging the validity of the signatures collected. The group formally abandoned that strategy in December, choosing instead to argue that the elections board lacked the authority to approve a referendum because the law is an appropriations measure. Under the state constitution, appropriation bills are not subject to referendum.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth rejected that argument in February, saying the act does not appropriate funds for the state and thus can be put before the voters.

Casa De Maryland appealed directly to the high court, which agreed on Tuesday to hear the case.

“This is a law that changes in effect the eligibility for a public benefit,” the group’s attorney, Joseph Sandler, said Wednesday in explaining why it is an appropriation. “It essentially requires the government to put in future budget bills specific amounts to account for the number of students eligible for in-state tuition.”

The case is largely one of first impression for the Court of Appeals, added Sandler, of Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb PC in Washington, D.C. The high court has not ruled on whether a non-tax law can nevertheless be an appropriations bill, he said.

The attorney general’s office, in its brief to the high court, argued the constitutional prohibition on subjecting appropriations bills to referendum is designed to protect “the state’s ability to make good on its financial obligations or commitments.” The Dream Act, by contrast, “does not appropriate any funds for any purpose, mandate any future appropriation of money for any purpose, or raise any revenue,” the brief stated.

But the office did urge the judges to hear Casa de Maryland’s appeal, saying “the public interest would be served” by a final decision from the high court.

The case is John Doe v. Maryland State Board of Elections, No. 131, Sept. Term 2011.

Still waiting

Judge Silkworth’s February decision in the Dream Act case stands in contrast to his June 2010 decision that blocked a referendum on putting a slots casino near Arundel Mills Mall.

Silkworth found that the slots legislation was designed to raise money and therefore was not subject to referendum. The Court of Appeals overturned that decision in July 2010, adding that it would explain its reasons in an opinion to be filed later.

The court has not yet filed that opinion.

The slots bill survived the November 2010 referendum. The casino is scheduled to open this June.