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‘My reputation precedes me,’ says House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., ‘but I’m getting soft in my old age.’ (File photo)

The chair’s new class

11 freshman join 22-member committee Del. Joe Vallario has led since 1993

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. might understandably feel more like a college guidance counselor than the head of an influential panel during the first weeks of the 2015 General Assembly session, which begins Wednesday.

Fully half of his 22-member committee will consist of freshmen delegates.

Many will be in search of a mentor, Vallario predicted, adding he would love to fill such a role.

“They’ll learn the process,” said Vallario, D-Calvert and Prince George’s. “I look forward to working with them.”

Vallario acknowledged he has a reputation as a strong-willed chairman, willing to let hearings last for hours and withhold votes on legislation he has no intention of having pass his committee. However, he said the new members should not feel intimidated.

“My reputation precedes me,” said Vallario, 77. “[But] I’m getting soft in my old age.”

One sign of Vallario’s softening this session will be the committee’s greater reliance on its subcommittees, he said.

These panels addressing criminal law, civil statutes, family law, juvenile law and estates and trusts have seldom met publicly and have carried little influence in past years.

“We will make sure that all of the members of my committee are involved in whatever decisions we make,” said Vallario, who has chaired the judiciary panel since 1993. “We’ll bring more people into the fold.”

Del.-elect Charles E. Sydnor III, a member of the freshman class, said he hopes to work on legislation addressing police conduct and ensuring that law enforcement’s use of surveillance equipment complies with constitutional limits.

Sydnor said he has no concerns about Vallario’s reputation.

“I look forward to working with him,” said Sydnor, D-Baltimore County. “I look forward to his mentoring.”

Substantive issues

While age may have softened Vallario’s views on subcommittees, substantive issues are another matter.

His support for the bail system is as strong as ever, Vallario said: he intends to oppose any proposal to strip District Court commissioners of their authority to release people who have been arrested on the condition that they post bond, when appropriate, to ensure they show up for trial.

A state commission on reforming Maryland’s pretrial system has recommended the elimination of bail, saying it has a disparate impact on low-income individuals, keeping them in detention while wealthier individuals, accused of more serious offenses, can afford their release before trial. The Governor’s Commission to Reform Maryland’s Pretrial System has also recommended a state pilot project to try out a computerized risk assessment program to help commissioners determine if an arrestee poses a risk to public safety or of not returning for trial if released.

“I’m certainly not in favor of it,” Vallario said of replacing bail with a computerized assessment of a defendant’s risk of flight. “When this guy doesn’t show up, that machine is not going to go out looking for him.”

Under Vallario, the Judiciary Committee has been a roadblock to legislation that would make it easier for judges to strip parental rights from men who allegedly fathered children through rape.

The bill, dubbed the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act, perennially passes the Senate but fails in the Judiciary Committee, generally over concerns that the accused fathers would neither receive adequate notice of the mother’s motion to eliminate their paternity rights nor have a realistic chance to challenge the accusation of sexual assault in court.

Lisae C. Jordan, of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she is “certainly hopeful” that the Judiciary Committee’s new configuration will give the measure a better chance of being approved by the panel.

She said at least two of the delegates-elect, William C. “Will” Smith Jr. and Brett Wilson, have experience combatting domestic violence and have personally heard from its victims.

Smith, D-Montgomery, chaired the Montgomery County’s Victim Services Advisory Board; Wilson, R-Washington, has prosecuted child abuse cases while serving as an assistant state’s attorney for Washington County.

Smith said he endorses the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act, adding it “has a solid chance of passage” in the committee and on the House floor.

Vallario “has a reputation for being a strong chairman,” Smith added. “He has shown that he is somebody we can all work with.”

Wilson said he has “no concerns about working with the chairman,” having testified often before the committee in past years on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.

This session’s version of the Rape Survivor Family Protection Act seeks to address prior concerns by including a requirement that the alleged rapists receive actual notice of the mother’s motion to end their paternity rights, Jordan said.

“I believe that we have addressed all of the legitimate concerns of the members,” said Jordan, MCASA’s executive director and counsel. “The bill contains language about actual notice. That is an issue we have clearly addressed.”

In addition to Sydnor, Smith and Wilson, the new Judiciary Committee members will be William A. “Will” Campos, D-Prince George’s; David Moon, D-Montgomery; Marice Morales, D-Montgomery; Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard; Jay Jalisi, D-Baltimore County; Deb Rey, R-St. Mary’s, Trent Kittleman, R-Carroll and Howard; and William “Bill” Folden, R-Frederick.

The Judiciary Committee lost two of its strongest voices last year.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons. D-Montgomery, opted not to seek re-election in order to mount an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the state Senate, losing to Cheryl Kagan. Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Upper Shore, ran for re-election and lost.

Simmons and Smigiel said that despite his rough-hewn reputation, Vallario has a soft heart for those who testify before the committee and great respect for legislators who are persistent.

“He has never run [the committee] by fiat,” Simmons said. “He runs it by persuasion.”

Smigiel, who often served as the strident Republican opposition to the Democratic chairman, said he nevertheless has great respect for Vallario.

“Joe is very opinionated on some things, but if you ask to see him he will see you,” Smigiel said. “Joe is not beyond changing.”

In addition to Simmons and Smigiel, committee members who will not return this session are Sam Arora, D-Montgomery, who retired; Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City, Kriselda Valderrama, D-Prince George’s, and Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, whose committee assignment changed; Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and Washington, and Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, who were elected to the state senate; Michael A. McDermott, R-Eastern Shore, who lost an election bid for state senate; and Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, and Darren M. Swain, D-Prince George’s, who lost re-election bids.

In addition to Vallario, returning committee members are Dels. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and vice chair; Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City; Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore City; John W.E. Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County, Frank M. Conaway Jr., D-Baltimore City; Glen Glass, R-Harford and Cecil; Susan K. McComas, R-Harford; Neil Parrott, R-Washington; Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City; and Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George’s.