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Judge dismisses lawsuit over Hopkins police ballot question

ANNAPOLIS — A judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit challenging a decision by the Maryland State Board of Elections that the law allowing Johns Hopkins University to establish a private police force could not be subject to referendum.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge William C. Mulford II ruled that the issue was not yet ripe for review because the determination the petitioners challenged had been rescinded, though he noted that he was dismissing the case without prejudice and leaving open the possibility that it could come before the court again.

Women Against Private Police, or WAPP, filed suit after submitting a proposed petition for referendum to the board and receiving an “advance determination” that a question about the law could not be placed on the ballot because it was an appropriation. They argued that a revised advance determination did not rescind the initial one and sought a judge’s ruling on whether the legislation is “referable.”

Mulford did not reach the issue of referability Tuesday but found the revised advanced determination effectively replaced the earlier one. He ruled from the bench after hearing arguments.

Assistant Attorney General Andrea Trento told Mulford the petitioners were seeking an advisory opinion instead of waiting for the board to make an official decision that could be reviewed.

“There is no justiciable conflict yet,” Trento said. “There’s just a difference of opinion.”

Trento declined to comment following the hearing.

But Jillian Aldebron, chairwoman of WAPP, said after the hearing that the dispute with the board remains because there is no reason to believe the board will change its position on whether the law can go to referendum.

“They focused on that the whole time, from the beginning,” she said, referencing early calls with the board about a possible petition.

David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland who argued the case, said Mulford’s decision “seems to be postponing the inevitable” and will simply force the petitioners to start over in a couple of weeks, once they submit their first round of signatures and ask the board to determine if they can move forward.

“It doesn’t expedite the process,” he said of Tuesday’s ruling.

Rocah declined to comment on any appeal of the judge’s ruling but said a decision would be made quickly after he consulted with his clients and co-counsel.

WAPP, formed as a ballot initiative group to challenge the Johns Hopkins University police law, submitted its proposed petition to the Board of Elections on April 8, seeking an advance determination about its sufficiency. The group was informed on April 17 that the bill could not be referred to referendum because “legislative spending measures” in the bill made it an appropriations bill. The bill directs the governor to include funds in future budgets for four youth programs.

The Maryland Constitution prohibits rejection or repeal by referendum of a law “making any appropriation for maintaining the State Government, or for maintaining or aiding any public institution, not exceeding the next previous appropriation for the same purpose.”

Trento conceded that the initial advance determination was an error and required a revision.

On April 25, the revised advance determination was issued. The petitioners also asked Mulford to extend the deadline to file their petition because the late revision cost them time to collect signatures. Trento argued there is no remedy in the law for a late advance determination.

Rocah said the underlying case addresses a “critically important question” of whether the legislature can “tack on” unrelated spending measures and render a bill ineligible for referendum.

The Public Justice Center also represents the petitioners.

The case is Women Against Private Police et al. v. Maryland State Board of Elections et al., C02CV191327.

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