Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

General Assembly passes protective order, hate crime, hairstyle bills

Time expires on 'Supreme Court,' judicial elections amendments

ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation in the waning hours of its virus-abbreviated 2020 session to enable alleged victims of sexual assault to seek protective orders against any individual who allegedly attacked them in the previous six months.

If enacted, the bill would broaden the existing law that permits alleged victims to seek protection orders in district court against family members or romantic partners. Current law also enables disabled or elderly adults to seek protective orders.

The legislature, which adjourned 19 days early in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19, also passed measures to ease the standard for proving a hate crime and expand the Maryland civil rights law’s definition of “race” to include ethnic hairstyles.

However, time expired Wednesday on proposed constitutional amendments to end or limit contested judicial elections for the circuit court and to change the name of Maryland’s top court to the Supreme Court.

The General Assembly-approved legislation awaits Gov. Larry Hogan’s approval or veto.

The House of Delegates passed the protective order measure on an overwhelming vote of 123-8 on Wednesday, a day after the Senate approved the bill 27-18.

Supporters of the legislation – Senate Bill 210 and House Bill 248 – have called it necessary to protect sexual assault victims from being attacked by the same person, while opponents decried the absence of due process protections – such as the right to an attorney — for those accused in civil court of having essentially committed a violent crime against one they would regard as a stranger.

Opponents included Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who led the Democratic-run chamber for more than 30 years before relinquishing his seat this year as he battles cancer. Miller said he could not support a measure so overbroad that it would allow civil protection orders against unrepresented individuals found by a mere preponderance of the evidence of having attempted to grope someone.

Under the hate crime measure, prosecutors would no longer need to prove that hate for the victim’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability was the sole motivation for a defendant’s criminal act. Instead, the prosecution would have to prove – still beyond a reasonable doubt – that the criminal act was motivated “in substantial part” by the victim’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

The legislation, approved overwhelmingly by both houses, was spurred by the May 2017 slaying of Richard Collins III, a black Army 2nd lieutenant, by Sean Urbanski, who is white, on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

Urbanski was found guilty of first-degree murder last year and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. His sentencing is scheduled for April 16.

But before the Prince George’s County Circuit Court jury deliberated, Judge Lawrence V. Hill Jr. dismissed a hate crime charge against Urbanski. Hill ruled that prosecutors had not proved the slaying was motivated solely by Urbanski’s animus toward Collins’ race, as required by law.

The hate crime measure – SB 606 and HB917 — has been dubbed “2nd Lieutenant Richard Collins III’s Law.

Also awaiting action by the governor is legislation to ban race discrimination based on “traits historically associated with race, including hair texture, afro hairstyles, and protective hairstyles.” The bill defines a “protective hairstyle” as one “designed to protect the ends of the hair by decreasing tangling, shedding, and breakage, including braids, twists, and locks.”

Civil rights attorneys have long challenged corporate hairstyle policies — such as a requirement that hair be kept unbraided — as having a “disparate impact” on racial minorities. Such arguments of unintended or tacit racial bias have had mixed success in the courts in the absence of an express, statutory link between race and hairstyle, according to court records.

The same courtroom results have held true with regard to claims of housing and public accommodations bias, where courts have often held that while racial minorities are a protected class, hairstyle is not.

The bill, which passed both houses overwhelmingly, makes clear that hairstyle is inseparable from race, said Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., the bill’s chief sponsor and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The measure linking race and hairstyle bias – SB 531 and HB 1444 — is part of a national movement to end a tacit form of racial discrimination.

California, New Jersey and New York have recently enacted such statutes, known as CROWN laws, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair.

Montgomery County passed a CROWN ordinance last year. The law went into effect Feb. 6.

The issue of hairstyle bias came to the fore in December 2018, when a referee in New Jersey told a black high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit the match. Last year, a high school student in Mont Belvieu, Texas, was told his dreadlocks violated the school’s dress code.

The Maryland Judiciary strongly supported two proposed constitutional amendments that died this session.

One amendment called for changing the name of the state’s top court from the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court of Maryland. Members of the high court, now called “judges,” would have become “justices,” with the “chief judge” becoming “chief justice.”

The amendment also would have renamed the intermediate Court of Special Appeals the Appellate Court of Maryland.

The second amendment would have ended contested judicial elections for the circuit court and made gubernatorial selections to that bench subject to Senate confirmation.

Currently, the governor appoints circuit court judges. But a person can also be elected to a judgeship by challenging a sitting judge in an election.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said such contested elections are inconsistent with the judicial obligation to be fair and impartial and to avoid even the appearance of favoritism.

“Contested elections are by definition political,” Barbera said in support of the amendment. “The temptation to make promises … is often too great.”

A third amendment, opposed by the Judiciary, would have allowed judicial candidates to wage election fights only against circuit court judges confirmed by the Senate with less than 80% of the vote. Barbera said the proposed 80% solution would not go far enough in removing the taint of politics and its related fundraising from judges, who must be free from even the appearance of partiality toward donors.

“There should not be money in the courtroom,” Barbera said in opposition.

To become constitutional amendments, the proposals would have had to be passed by three-fifths of both the House and Senate and then approved by Maryland voters this November.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misstated that Urbanski had been sentenced.