Md. lawmakers still undecided on murder, med-mal, marriage bills

Steve Lash//April 6, 2018

Md. lawmakers still undecided on murder, med-mal, marriage bills

By Steve Lash

//April 6, 2018

ANNAPOLIS – With the state’s most populous city facing a homicide epidemic, the fate of legislation aimed at preventing and stiffening penalties for repeat gun offenders will come down to the final hours of the 2018 Maryland General Assembly on Monday.

By contrast, the lawmakers appear ready to defeat a proposed repeal of a decades-old rule requiring that doctors be barred from testifying in medical malpractice cases if they have spent more than 20 percent of their professional time as expert witnesses. Less certain is what the General Assembly will do about a Senate-House impasse about whether to raise the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 16, as the Senate seeks, or to 17, as the House of Delegates has passed.

Of the marriage proposal, Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin joked that he has his own home remedy to the intercameral disagreement.

“As the father of two daughters, I think they should wait until 40,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Crime bill

But the issue that has galvanized lawmakers most during its 90-day session has been an attempt to craft legislation to stem the more than 400 slayings in Baltimore since Jan. 1, 2017 – more than 80 percent of which have been committed with firearms.

The anti-crime legislation under consideration in the waning hours is an amalgamation of bills introduced early in the session and which the Senate has passed and the House of Delegates was still considering heading into the final weekend.

“We need to keep our eyes on the ball,” Zirkin said Friday of the need for a strong law to prevent more violence. “The citizens of Maryland are demanding accountability.”

The Senate-passed version of the anti-crime bill would provide enhanced penalties for repeat gun offenders, permit the state to appeal successful gun-suppression motions, broaden police wiretapping authority in firearms investigations, stiffen punishments for witness intimidation and call for  greater funding of witness-relocation and community-based educational, vocation and social programs that offer alternatives to gangs.

The House entered the weekend considering less stringent legislation that would retain the wiretapping, witness protection and community-based provisions of the Senate measure but reduce the punishment provisions for repeat gun offenders.

For example, the House Judiciary Committee dropped the Senate-passed provision allowing the state to appeal successful gun-suppression motions and eliminated the current law’s mandatory minimum sentence for those convicted of possession of an illegal drug with intent to distribute while carrying a gun. The committee also would enable a felon convicted of possessing a handgun to be eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences rather than the current law’s requirement of 50 percent.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said dropping the appeal of successful suppression motions “levels the playing field” between the substantial resources of the state and the limited funds of defendants.

Zirkin, chief sponsor of the Senate legislation pending in the House, insisted Friday “there’s plenty of time” to forge a compromise and stop “the revolving door of the criminal justice system” in which repeat gun offenders serve only short sentences before being released.

“These are the people who are producing all the carnage on the streets,” Zirkin said of repeat offenders. “These are the very individuals who have to be removed from society.”

Malpractice cases

With regard to the 20 percent rule, there appears to be little sentiment among lawmakers to end the eligibility standard for doctors to testify as medical experts in malpractice cases – even though the Senate passed a repeal measure earlier this session.

The House, by contrast, passed a bill to preserve the 20 percent rule but added a provision that the percentage applies to the medical expert’s practice during the 12 months prior to the filing of the lawsuit – not the time when the case goes to trial, which could be years later.

Dumais said she sees no reason for repeal, adding the rule has well served the interests of civil litigation for the past 30 years.

MedChi, the state’s main physicians’ organization, has lobbied hard against the repeal bill, saying the rule is a hedge against doctors essentially specializing in courtroom testimony and being what the group assails as “professional witnesses” for plaintiffs in malpractice cases.

But the Maryland Association for Justice, an organization of plaintiffs’ attorneys, has countered that the 20 percent rule should be repealed as it has fomented protracted litigation because plaintiffs and defendants have fought over whether a medical expert has spent more than one-fifth of his or her practice on court-related matters.

Regarding the minimum age for marriage, the Senate and House have agreed only that the current law’s standard of 15 is too young. The Senate-set adjustment to 16 and the House’s preference for 17 has set the measure on a course for final-day negotiations, or, as Dumais jokingly suggested, a “coin flip.”

Added Zirkin: “I think we’ve got to conference on this.”

The crime measure is Senate Bill 122; the repeal legislation is Senate Bill 30; and the marriage measures are Senate Bill 670 and House Bill 191.

Daily Record legal affairs writer Heather Cobun contributed to this article.


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