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Maryland voters will weigh marijuana legalization, other ballot questions

Maryland voters — by mail and early voting and on Election Day — will have the opportunity to be heard on a handful of ballot issues in addition to choosing the next governor, comptroller and attorney general.

After decades of debate, the voters have the chance to approve the legalization of recreational marijuana. 

They’ll also get to weigh in on proposed changes to the names of the state’s top appeals courts, the thresholds for jury trials in civil cases as well changes to residency requirements for state legislative candidates.

The first ballot question asks voters to amend the state constitution to change the names of Maryland’s top two courts.

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If approved, Maryland’s Court of Appeals would become the Supreme Court of Maryland. The court’s judges would then be called justices.

The state Court of Special Appeals would become the Maryland Appellate Court.

Only Maryland and New York and the District of Columbia currently refer to their top appellate court as the Court of Appeals.

In 2021, Mary Ellen Barbera, then chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, told lawmakers the names of the state’s top courts was the subject of confusion, especially among out-of-state lawyers, law students and litigants.

“That confusion persists among Marylanders,” Barbera told lawmakers. “They are most familiar with our nation’s United States Supreme Court and expect that Maryland would have the same name for its highest court.”

The change affects only the name and not terms or official responsibilities.

There are minimal costs with the change as the courts would be required to exhaust existing supplies of letterhead, business cards and other items before ordering new stock to reflect the changes.

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A second question, if approved by voters, would change the eligibility requirements for state delegates and senators and require them to maintain “a primary place of abode” for at least six months prior to the election.

Currently, lawmakers only have to maintain a domicile in the district in which they intend to serve.

And while the change seems minor, it would close a loophole created by a 24-year-old Court of Appeals ruling involving  Sen. Clarence Blount. Blount, then 77 and the longtime Senate majority leader and chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, represented a district in Baltimore City but was living in Pikesville in Baltimore County, keeping only an apartment and bed in his district.

The Court of Appeals ruled that Blount had not abandoned his district and maintained his eligibility because he was domiciled outside the district. The “Blount Rule” effectively opened the door for lawmakers to sleep in places outside their district while maintaining an in-district address — even if only for appearances.

A recent case of this involved Del. Hasan “Jay” Jalisi who owned an expensive home near the Caves Valley Country Club in the 11th District of Baltimore County but claimed that he lived in a home that served as office space inside the 10th District.

Voters will also be asked to approve an increase to the threshold that would permit a civil jury trial from more than $15,000 to more than $25,000.

Sen. Jeff Waldtreicher, D-Montgomery and sponsor of the 2021 bill, said the change would make the process of low-dollar lawsuits more efficient by keeping them in District Court. He said jury trials in those civil matters are “antithetical to the interests of justice.”

The bill was supported by tort lawyers, including the Maryland Association for Justice, and opposed by insurance companies.

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After years of debate, voters are being asked to approve an amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would legalize the use of recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older beginning July 1, 2023.

Approval would also trigger companion legislation passed this year that includes a study of the cannabis industry in the state with an eye toward equity in licensing; earmarks about 30% of the state’s proceeds for communities historically and disproportionately impacted by marijuana enforcement; and allows for expungement of possession charges. Those serving jail time for those crimes could petition to be released for time served.

Since 2021, 13 states have put the question of legalization of recreational marijuana to voters. All have been successful at the ballot box.

A series of recent polls show majority support for the change in Maryland.

The final statewide question would eliminate the Orphans Court in Howard County.

Estate and probate matters in that county — the court handled nearly 850 cases in fiscal 2020 and nearly 1,100 in fiscal 2021 — would be handled by the judges in the Circuit Court of Howard County.

Only Harford and Montgomery counties currently handle estate cases in this manner.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat and sponsor of the bill passed in 2021, told lawmakers the additional cases would increase the circuit court workload by about 2%.

Byron McFarlane, the register of wills in Howard County, said the change would reform the process by ending reliance on three lay judges who must agree on decisions, sit part time and often delay decisions that are appealed more than any other orphans court except one.

“This bill would create a more efficient, more reliable and more equitable process for grieving families by providing them with a fully-vetted professionalized court they can rely on,” McFarlane told lawmakers last year.

A fiscal analysis estimates that as much as $55,600 annually could be saved by the move. The savings would be offset if the court has to bring in a judge to help with the caseload. A retired judge sitting one-day a week could cost about $36,900 annually. Hiring an extra judge could cost more than $400,000.