Sen. William C. “Will” Smith says he plans to take a go-slow approach in what will be his first General Assembly session as chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“I’ll be limiting the bills that I sponsor,” said Smith, D-Montgomery, who will take over for retiring Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin when the 90-day session starts Jan. 8. “I am going to hold off so that I can acclimate to the new position.”
Many lawmakers say the legislature’s leftward change in leadership this session – not only on the Senate committee but in the House and Senate generally – makes them cautiously optimistic about prospects for their legislative efforts, which were either discouraged or stalled under the prior, more moderate leadership.
These legislative proposals include calls to impose background checks on purchasers of long guns and to permit terminally ill patients to be provided, upon request, a lethal amount of medication for them to take themselves.
Other measure would prohibit the jailing of motorists for driving with a suspended license when the suspension resulted from their inability to pay a fine and would enable injured police officers and firefighters to seek damages from the individuals who caused their injuries.
Del. David Moon, a Judiciary Committee member and a sponsor of much of this legislation, said he is “very excited” about the new leadership but said nothing is certain in Annapolis.
“Just because we have new leaders and members doesn’t mean that everything is a slam dunk to pass,” said Moon, D-Montgomery.
Leadership at the top
The new leadership begins at the top with incoming Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, who will take over for Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who is stepping down as he battles cancer, and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, D-Baltimore County, who succeeds Del. Michael E. Busch, who died in April.
Smith has been tapped by Ferguson to succeed Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who said he will resign from the Senate effective Jan. 1 to spend more time with his family and to build his private law practice.
Republican Sen. Michael J. Hough, a Judicial Proceedings Committee member who worked well with Zirkin in crafting bipartisan criminal reform legislation for nonviolent offenders, said he hopes to have a cooperative relationship with Smith.
“If the Senate moved further to the left, it doesn’t change my responsibility to my constituents, to continue to advocate for my constituents,” said Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll. “We’ll see. I’ve had a good working relationship with Will Smith. We’ll see what happens.”
In addition to regular legislation, the Senate and House committees are expected to consider proposed constitutional amendments to raise the mandatory retirement age of judges from 70 and to change the name of Maryland’s top court from the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court. If approved by the General Assembly, the proposed amendments would be placed before Maryland voters on the ballot next November.
Pace of legislation
Moon, who serves the same eastern Montgomery County district as Smith, said he hopes the new leadership will help advance what he called the “decriminalization of poverty.” The movement is most commonly illustrated by the Maryland Judiciary’s reduced use of cash bail as a condition of pretrial release but which also should include the end of jailing individuals for offenses related to an inability to pay a fine, Moon said.
He noted that bills must often percolate for several years in the General Assembly before being enacted.
“They (leadership) will hopefully be sympathetic to what we are trying to do here,” Moon said. “Over the three-year time frame (until the next election), I am hopeful that we can get a lot of this done.”
Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she is “ecstatic” about what she called the General Assembly’s “progressive” new leadership in 2020.
Atterbeary’s legislation last session to require background checks for would-be purchasers of long guns at private sales sparked conflict between leaders of the Judicial Proceedings and Judiciary committees. Each later blamed the other side for the bill’s failure to come to final votes in the Senate and House as time ran out on the General Assembly’s 2019 term.
Atterbeary said she will reintroduce the gun-safety bill this coming session, calling the measure necessary “given the culture of violence.”
Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, incoming vice chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he will be chief sponsor of legislation to repeal the “fireman’s rule,” which holds that injured firefighters and police cannot sue the person who caused their injuries, because the harm is regarded solely as an on the job injury compensable only by workers’ compensation.
“It is time for Maryland to honor the public safety officials” by giving them a cause of action, said Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery.
Smith, who served as the committee’s vice chair last session, praised Zirkin’s leadership even as he said he plans to bring greater structure and “streamlined” voting schedules to a panel that had regularly held voting sessions lasting beyond 10 p.m.
Smith added that he will separate committee members into formal work groups based on legislative subjects, so members can be better prepared with amendments during the voting sessions.
The work groups will “go a long way for morale, for efficiency and for quality,” Smith said. “This is in no way an indictment of how the committee was run.”
Smith’s plan to forgo being the lead sponsor of legislation in 2020 stands in stark contrast to last session, when he was the primary backer of two controversial proposals that failed to pass.
One bill, which failed on the Senate floor and is expected to be reintroduced this coming session, would have allowed doctors to provide a lethal dose of medication for patients with a prognosis of death within six months to take themselves. Another bill would have removed the state’s cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, a measure that failed to garner a House co-sponsor and died in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Smith, a Navy reservist, was not in Annapolis for the end of the 2019 session in April, having been deployed to Afghanistan in late March. He returned in November.
House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger, who had a testy professional relationship with Zirkin last session, said he welcomes the elevation of Smith, with whom he worked in the House of Delegates for two years before Smith joined the Senate in December 2016.
Clippinger, who is entering just his second year as chairman, added he would provide advice to Smith upon request about leading a committee. Clippinger, D-Baltimore, succeeded Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., who had led the Judiciary Committee for a quarter century.
“I know Will well; we have a good relationship,” Clippinger said. “I’m sure he will discover the challenge of being a new chair in Judicial Proceedings. I look forward to working with him through some of those problems.”