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Longtime House judiciary panel chair Vallario loses re-election bid

House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s and other supporters of a bill that would retain Maryland’s current bail system argue judges must retain discretion to assess bail if they believe it to be the best and appropriate way to ensure a released defendant shows up for trial. (File photo)

During his 25 years as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, was known for instructing his Democratic colleagues on how they should vote and refusing to hold votes on bills he found particularly repugnant. (File photo)

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the influential chair of the House Judiciary Committee for the past quarter-century, will leave the General Assembly in January – but not voluntarily.

In a result few expected, the Prince George’s County Democrat finished third among House candidates in Tuesday’s primary election, when only the top two – Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. and former school board member Ron Watson – qualified for November’s General Election.

“I’m unemployed,” Vallario said Wednesday.

He added his loss was not a total surprise and he was resigned to the possibility of losing as Election Day neared.

“If I win I win; if I lose, I win, too,” Vallario said he told himself during the past week. “I have more time to spend with my six children and 21 grandchildren.”

Vallario, 81, said he will “certainly miss” the General Assembly when the 2019 session begins in January without him.

“But I might be missing it from downtown Florida somewhere,” he added. “I always wanted to be in Florida in winter, but never could be.”

Vallario joined the General Assembly in 1975 and became chair of the Judiciary Committee in 1993.  He has often run the committee with a stern hand, even instructing his Democratic colleagues on how they should vote on legislation via notations on the conference voting lists. He has also been known to refuse to hold votes on bills he found particularly repugnant.

Vallario will likely be replaced by the panel’s vice chair, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery. Dumais, who took a more active role this past session in leading committee hearings, called Vallario’s defeat “a huge loss.”

“For all the times we may have disagreed, we completely respected each other’s ideas,” Dumais said. “He is without a doubt one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”

Dumais said the naming of Vallario’s successor belongs to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who she expects will make the selection after the general election in November.

Vallario said he would advise his successor to “just play it cool and try to work with the people.”

Regardless of whom Busch selects, the Judiciary Committee will continue to consider “very weighty complex legislation” including reforms in criminal justice regarding violent and non-violent crime and how to “handle criminal justice with those who may be here undocumented,” Dumais said.

Due process protections

Vallario, a criminal defense attorney, often sought to protect the due-process rights of defendants in legislation even when that position was unpopular. Most recently, Vallario was a critic of a long-stalled bill to strip the parental rights of those alleged to have conceived the children through sexual assault.

Vallario’s criticized what he called the bill’s presumption of the accused parents’ guilt though they had not been convicted let alone charged with rape.

Vallario supported the measure – sponsored by Dumais – after provisions were added to ensure evidence of sexual assault was established by clear and convincing evidence and any testimony given during the parental-rights hearing would be barred from use in a criminal trial. The General Assembly passed the bill this year and Gov. Larry Hogan signed it into law.

Vallario has also supported the retention of bail amid efforts by reformers, like Dumais, who have assailed the system as keeping in pre-trial detention only those defendants too poor to make the payment. Vallario said the availability of a payment-based release serves as a safeguard against judges who would sooner jail a defendant than release them prior to trial.

Ricardo Flores, government-relations director at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, has tangled frequently with Vallario in committee hearing, particularly on the bail issue in which OPD has been among the reformers.

“There were times when we had to win a debate over his objections and vice versa,” Flores said Wednesday. “That (bail reform) is an example of a debate we had to win over his objections.”

Flores said his office and the chairman have maintained mutual respect.

“OPD has over the years had many agreements and disagreements with the chairman but I think for the most part he always seemed to have good reasons and bases for his point of view and there were times where I think he listened and considered other viewpoints and even changed his mind,” Flores said. “We appreciate having worked with him for many a year.”

Incremental changes

Del. David Moon, a Judiciary Committee member, said “a lot of people would be surprised” that a progressive Democrat like himself would work well with a more traditional party member but he and Vallario had “a very cordial working relationship” on the panel.

“I didn’t agree with every decision he made on policy matters but he gave us fair opportunity to make our case,” said Moon, D-Montgomery, who recalled committee sessions that went to the wee hours of the morning. “He’d let us have a say, sometimes until 3 a.m.”

One “underappreciated aspect” of Vallario as chair was his preference for incremental alterations in the law rather than sweeping changes, Moon added.

“He had quite a respect for law and the legal process (and) a general belief that we needed to be careful about making changes,” Moon said, citing Vallario’s urging of him last winter to hold off on legislation requiring the police to get search warrants in order to examine cellphone-tracking records of suspected criminals.

“He wanted to see the process play out all the way through the Supreme Court,” which was then considering the issue, Moon said.

The justices ruled last week in Carpenter v. United States that a warrant is required to access the tracking records under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

‘End of an era’

Former Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a staunch and outspoken Upper Shore conservative who served on the Judiciary Committee from 2004 to 2015, called Vallario’s re-election defeat “an absolutely tremendous loss in the legislature.”

Smigiel said he disagreed often with Vallario but never felt ignored of demeaned by the committee chair who had “grace, finesse and the ability to work across party lines.”

“I fought with him,” added Smigiel. “He allowed it. He gave me the leeway.”

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, who served on the House Judiciary Committee from 1999 to 2007, called Vallario’s loss “shocking” and the “end of an era.”

Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he holds no grudge for his many bills that passed the Senate only to die in Vallario’s committee.

“I’ve probably had more bills killed by him than anybody and I still adore him,” added Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.

Veteran lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who worked on past Vallario campaigns and calls him a friend, said the delegate will be missed by him and others with business before the Judiciary Committee.

“He was always accessible, always listened,” Bereano said. “You had to be prepared when you came in to talk to him. He was always 100 percent straightforward and honest with me. It’s really all a lobbyist can ask for.”

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