Felony Murder Rule
On March 2, 2023, the Judiciary Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates heard testimony regarding the felony murder rule and a proposal to change state law so that it would not apply to a defendant under the age of 25. Ordinarily, the prosecution must prove that a defendant intentionally killed someone in order to convict them of murder. But the felony murder rule, which Maryland and most other states have adopted, allows the prosecutor to prove only that the defendant intended to be involved in another felony, such as robbery or arson and that involvement is regarded as supplying the “intent” for a murder conviction.
The felony murder rule arose in England and was carried over into the common law adopted by Maryland. At that time, there were fewer felonies, and for many years, the only penalty for a felony was death. Criminal law has become much more finely tuned in the ensuing years, so that the law recognizes distinctions about crimes committed with a gun or other deadly weapon as well as varying degrees of involvement in planning, aiding, or actively carrying out a crime. In a criminal case, a defendant is frequently charged with multiple offenses, each based on some detail of the crime, and a jury may convict someone of any combination of the offenses. Two of the witnesses in support of the bill had served as jurors in cases where they were instructed to apply the felony murder rule, and they felt that it was wrong to ask citizen jurors to apply an unjust rule.
In the most extreme example cited by one witness before the committee, if two people commit a robbery and one of them shoots someone, both can be tried for murder even though only one of them pulled the trigger. Although this makes it easier for prosecutors to secure harsh sentences for crimes whenever a death occurs, it has long been criticized by legal scholars who argue that it violates the general principle that you are held accountable only for intentional conduct.
The bill under consideration by the Judiciary Committee, HB 1180, the Youth Accountability and Safety Act, would exempt defendants under the age of 25 from the felony murder rule. They could still be convicted of the felony that they actually committed, but they could not be convicted of murder without proof that they intentionally killed the victim.
The League of Women Voters of Maryland does not have a position explicitly addressing the felony murder rule, so we are not able to support or oppose the measure. Nevertheless, it raises such important questions about fairness in Maryland’s criminal justice system that we are bringing this information to our readers.
Housing 2023 Issue Paper
submitted by Deborah Mitchell
The League of Women Voters of Maryland studied housing in 1982 and 1983. Research unveiled a state policy on housing that was fragmented and lacking priorities. It proposed action to develop a state housing policy responsive to the need for more affordable housing and to clarify landlord/tenant relationships.
LWVMD’s Housing Position supports:
- Housing programs targeted to those geographic areas with proportionally higher levels of housing assistance needs.
- A change of state landlord/tenant laws to require a clearly written lease that states the rights and responsibilities of both parties and includes a warranty of habitability.
- Requirement of landlords to state reasons for either terminating tenancy or initiating the eviction proceedings.
The 2022 Maryland General Assembly legislative session proved favorable for many housing justice bills:
- SB 6/ HB 86 Tenant Protections Act of 2022 -- Requiring that landlords disclose utility bill systems, making certain provisions if not disclosed, and providing rights to the tenants. Passed both chambers and enacted by the Governor.
- SB 279/HB 571 Access to Council in Eviction Special Fund -- Altering the funds to include a broader category of where the money comes from and how it can be distributed. Passed both chambers enacted into law without the Governor’s signature.
SB 744/HB 927 Affordable Housing - Excess Real Property – Requiring the Planning Department to turn in a list of the excess property so the Department of Housing can determine if it can be used for affordable housing; establishes a rental housing fund. Passed both chambers and enacted.
Despite the successful 2022 legislation, inequitable access to an insufficient inventory of affordable housing and lack of dedicated and sustainable funding for emergency rental assistance and housing stability services continues to adversely contribute to the housing crisis in Maryland’s most vulnerable communities.
Recently, Renters United Maryland and a Public Justice Center report revealed:
- Evictions are nearing pre-pandemic highs in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, and other localities.
- Women-led (70%) and Black-led (74%) homes will likely be evicted at much higher rates without funding and continuing emergency rental assistance.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, as court delays and emergency rental assistance slowed the pace of non-payment eviction filings, evictions based on lease non-renewal roughly doubled.
- Landlords have retaliated against organized tenants’ groups demanding safe and healthy living conditions with unjust and discriminatory lease non-renewals.
For the 2023 Legislative Session, housing justice proponents have introduced legislation to increase the inventory of affordable housing, allocate dedicated funding for emergency rental assistance, and protect tenants’ rights. For example:
HB 150/SB166 Housing and Community Development - Adaptive Reuse
Establishes that adaptive reuse, retrofitting, and repurposing of existing buildings to develop new affordable multifamily housing is an eligible use of certain financial assistance provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development; and requires the Department to notify applicants for certain financial assistance that adaptive reuse is an eligible use of funds.
HB 211 Rental Housing Fund, Calculation of Taxable Income, and Transfer Tax - Alterations (Affordable Housing Investment Act)
Requires the Governor, beginning in Fiscal Year 2025, to include in the annual budget bill $20,000,000 for the Rental Housing Fund; requires certain taxpayers to add a certain deduction back to federal adjusted gross income to determine Maryland taxable income; alters the rate of the transfer tax on certain residential real property; and requires taxpayers who itemize deductions on a State income tax return to reduce the amount of the deductions by the amount of certain qualified residence interest paid or accrued during the taxable year.
HB 151 Real Property - Residential Leases - Notification of Rent Increases
Requires a landlord to notify a tenant in writing or e-mail at least 120 days before increasing the tenant's rent by more than 4%.
By promoting equitable access to an adequate inventory of affordable and safe housing, protecting the rights of tenants, and allocating/incorporating dedicated funding streams into the State Budget for emergency rental assistance and housing stability services, housing and community development partners can help mitigate the chances that predominantly Black and Brown families, who are still battered by the pandemic and an unstable economy, from eviction.
Juvenile Justice 2023 Issue Paper
Juvenile Justice Reform
submitted by Kathy Larrabee
Juvenile justice systems seek to balance the task of salvaging young offenders from a life of crime and incarceration while also protecting the public. Juvenile justice in Maryland can be traced back hundreds of years.
Stakeholders and lawmakers dedicated to juvenile justice reform (JJR) generally have chosen to address the issues with new laws, while administration officials prefer tweaking the existing system to let it work as initially intended. These philosophical differences were most evident in 2022 legislative session. For the most part, the 2022 bills were based on the recommendations of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council authorized by the General Assembly in 2019.
Several 2022 reforms will make sweeping changes, including: raising the minimum age of juvenile court to 13, except for children ages 10 to 12 alleged to have committed the most serious violent offenses; allowing the Department of Juvenile Services greater discretion in areas of diversion and adjustments, and limiting terms of probation imposed by a juvenile court. Importantly, a permanent Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform and Emerging and Best Practices will be established, and the Child Interrogation Protection Act will give more rights to children and families.
How effectively the new laws will be implemented is the next big step. Supporters of JJR have declared Maryland’s juvenile court system to be among the worst in the country. In Maryland, more than 30 legal charges would make juveniles automatically eligible for transfer from juvenile court to adult court—an estimated 200 cases per year. These crimes range from murder to handgun possession. According to state data, from 2013 to 2020, about 7,800 juveniles were automatically charged as adults in Maryland, and about 80 percent of them were Black. Specifically, Black juveniles under age 13 will benefit most under new JJR reforms given they are disproportionately and disparately impacted by Department of Juvenile Services intakes, dispositions, and placements. Ironically, within 2 months of the new JJR law on minimum age of jurisdiction, a 9-year-old Black boy, from the porch of his home, shot and killed a teen neighbor on the porch of her home in the Baltimore City suburbs.
The League of Women Voters of Maryland (LWVMD) began studying correctional institutions and parole and probation procedures in the mid- 80’s after realizing little progress had occurred since its broader, initial studies in the early 70s which included a juvenile corrections study that evaluated the juvenile court system and lead to new policy positions.
Specifically, the LWVMD supports:
Use of specialized judges, counseling services and administration of juvenile cases, all geared to dealing with families, and (1) small, regional juvenile institutions; (2) Individually designed training and treatment programs and local or regional diagnostic services for juvenile offenders; (3) Coordination of programs and services for juvenile offenders provided by the state agencies; and (4) 24-hour supervised residential work and restitution centers with treatment programs available.
Additionally, the League advocates against systemic racism in the justice system and, at a minimum, for preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement. LWVMD calls upon every level of government to eradicate systemic racism and the harm it causes.
Firearms Control 2023 Issue Paper
submitted by Willow Goode
The United States of America has a gun problem. This past summer 19 children and 2 adults were murdered at Robb Elementary. A school that was celebrating its final days before summer break. Instead of planning summer vacations families were planning funerals. Unfortunately, this has become the stark reality of living in the United States.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, “Every day, more than 110 Americans are killed with guns and more than 200 are shot and wounded”. The United States is not the only country that deals with mental illness, domestic violence, and extreme racism, but the United States is a country where people can easily access a gun due to the relaxed laws. Daily news of shootings dominates the headlines and our communities are becoming numb to the violence.
After repeated mass shootings in May 2022, the League of Women Voters of the United States submitted recommendations on gun safety reforms to the Congressional Judiciary Committees. The League writes “Comprehensive legislative reform must be moved through this committee and considered for a floor vote to reduce gun violence and increase public safety for the nation. We are grateful that common sense legislation has moved in the US House, but there is more that must be done by both chambers of Congress to ensure that the horrific mass shootings of our children and our communities come to an end.” The League also writes about what should be included in comprehensive gun safety reform to include the following “(1) closing the gun show loophole, (2) providing universal background checks, (3) banning assault weapons and placing limits on high-capacity ammunition magazine size, (4) increasing penalties for straw purchases of guns, and (5) funding research and reporting on gun violence in America”.
A recent Supreme Court ruling of 6-3 New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen has now made some of Maryland’s gun laws unconstitutional. Like New York, Maryland has a stipulation that for people to obtain a handgun they are required to provide a “good and substantial reason” however the Supreme court has now deemed this unconstitutional making it that some of our gun laws will need to be rewritten.
This session the new ruling will be impacting proposed gun legislation. Already this session there has been a push to reduce and weaken gun control in the state. The League will be tracking several firearms control bills that have been introduced. A few of those bills are as follows:
SB001- Criminal Law - Wearing, Carrying, or Transporting Firearms - Restrictions (Gun Safety Act of 2023). The League will be supporting this bill which would prohibit anyone wearing, carrying, or transporting a firearm onto the property of another unless given certain permissions.
SB0086- Rifles and Shotguns – Possession – Age Requirement (Raise the Age Act of 2023). The League will be supporting this bill which would ban anyone from selling, renting, or transferring ammunition to a person under the age of 21. It would also prohibit anyone under the age of 21 from being able to purchase a rifle or shotgun (under certain circumstances). The League strongly supports restricting the availability of handguns and automatic weapons. According to Everytown for Gun Safety “When an assault weapon is used in a mass shooting there are six times as many people shot.”
The gun violence epidemic is not something that can be solved overnight, but something that will take time. Here at the League we hope we can get this epidemic under control before more lives are lost.
Civic Education 2023 Issue Paper
submitted by Genie Massey
Since 1920, the League of Women Voters has been an activist, grassroots organization whose leaders believed that people should play a critical role in our democracy. The League of Women Voters believes in representative government and in the individual liberties established in the Constitutions of the United States and of Maryland. Sustaining our democratic form of government depends upon the informed and active participation of the people in government. The League has always engaged in and supported civic education as a key component of the democratic process.
Civic education is the lifelong process that helps people become active, responsible, and knowledgeable members of our communities. As the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future works to achieve high-quality and diverse teacher pipelines, college and career readiness, and more resources for students to be successful, the League sees civic education as a foundational philosophy underpinning successful public education.
The League of Women Voters of Maryland supports the inclusion of civics in the Maryland State Curriculum Frameworks for Social Studies for grades Kindergarten through 12th grades to promote civic service to prepare students, morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship. Civic learning should also be fostered across the curriculum. It is important for novice and veteran teachers in all subject areas to have access to high-quality resources, programs, and professional development to foster Maryland’s continued excellence in civic education.
Civic education occurs in many settings beyond the school day, such as in sports, volunteer organizations, houses of worship, political rallies and campaigns, and at the polling place on Election Day. The League endorses this broad definition of “civics” and are concerned about all influences on the civic development of children, youth, and even adults. We support opportunities for students to put learning into practice such as in service-learning experiences, extra-curricular activities, school and community engagement, and opportunities to participate in school governance. We support strengthening service and volunteer opportunities as a pathway to stronger communities, improved mental health, improved academic outcomes, and a healthier democracy as individuals work in groups to solve issues they care about.
LWVMD supports programs to encourage excellence in civic learning for all, practices of constitutional democracy, and individual agency which lead to active participation in our political system. Different communities and population groups face differing obstacles to meaningful civic engagement, such as transportation, language barriers, and cultural differences. We support civic education and service programs designed to reach all Maryland residents as equal partners in our communities.
Education 2023 Issue Paper
submitted by Gail Sunderman
The LWVMD has a long-standing history of support for an equitable, accessible, and fully funded public education system. Recent legislative changes in Maryland, along with the significant needs resulting from and highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, make these priorities a continuing area of focus.
Blueprint for Maryland’s Future: In 2016, the Maryland General Assembly recognized the need to re-evaluate the education funding formula, learn more about inequities within our current educational system, and develop plans to strengthen Maryland’s public education system. Based on recommendations of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (the Kirwan Commission), the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (Blueprint) became law in the 2021 state legislative session, overriding Governor Hogan’s veto of the bill passed with bipartisan majorities in the 2020 session.
The Blueprint is a comprehensive bill that expands access to early childhood education, improves compensation and support for educators, increases a focus on college and career readiness, and adopts a funding formula that better accounts for the current needs of all students, as well as the specialized needs of students experiencing poverty, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. Further, there are accountability measures, including establishing the Accountability and Implementation Board (AIB), designed to ensure transparency and statewide consistency of implementation.
The Blueprint substantially increases State and local funding of public schools. State funding for most existing education formulas is increased and new funding formulas are established for specific purposes, with full funding phased in at varying rates to full implementation by FY 2032. Local governments are also required to increase their local appropriations for education over the 12-year implementation period.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and intensified many of the inequities in our current system, while also contributing to a delay in the implementation timeline of the Blueprint requirements. In 2021 the General Assembly passed an updated bill to adapt the timeline and address additional needs highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., increased technology funding, implementing summer programs and tutoring to support learning recovery, attention to address trauma and behavioral health needs). The General Assembly also established guidelines for use of federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) funds and passed the Built To Learn Act, creating an avenue for significant additional investments in school facilities, above existing state construction funds. The Built to Learn Act was tied to passage of the Blueprint bill, in part to ensure the facilities necessary for the Blueprint’s recommended expansion of career and technical training, as well as early childhood education. In 2022, the General Assembly made technical changes to the Blueprint to clarify provisions, adjust the implementation timeline, and require local districts to appropriate additional operating funds (HB1450/CH0033).
LWVMD is a member of the Coalition for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (Coalition), which is monitoring implementation of the Blueprint. The Coalition is particularly focused on full state funding of the Blueprint and transparency in Blueprint implementation and reporting. In 2022, the Coalition along with others, pushed back against the draft Comprehensive Implementation Plan released by the AIB. The deficiencies in the plan were compounded by the lack of regulatory guidance from MSDE and the complexity of the details that challenge the capacity of MSDE. The AIB extended the deadline for local districts to submit implementation plans for approval to March 2024, further delaying implementation. There is also concern that a number of jurisdictions, primarily those serving low-income and minority students, will face significant fiscal stress in meeting the Blueprint funding requirements.
School discipline reform: LWVMD joined the Coalition to Reform School Discipline (CRSD) in December 2022. The aim of CRSD is to make school discipline practices in Maryland schools fair, appropriate, equitable, and designed to keep youth in school and on track to graduate. In 2022, the General Assembly passed two bills that decriminalize school discipline by altering the definition of “reportable offense” to include only offenses that occurred off school premises and another limiting the use of seclusion and physical restraint as a behavioral health intervention under certain circumstances. In November 2022, CRSD successfully lobbied the AIB to incorporate an expanded focus on restorative approaches in the final Comprehensive Implementation Plan.
School staffing shortages: Shortages of both teachers and non instructional staff persist in Maryland. The Department of Legislative Services (DLS) reports (p. 59) several reasons for the decline, including decreased enrollment in teacher preparation programs, as well as recruitment, retention and retirement as reasons for teacher shortages, and low wages and high turnover for non instructional staff. The Blueprint includes provisions that aim to address the teacher shortage, including a minimum base salary of $60,000 by July 1, 2026 and additional support for teacher preparation, recruitment, and retention. Other efforts, such as focus on working conditions, may be necessary in order to expand school staffing.
Early education and preschool: The Blueprint expands voluntary full-day pre-kindergarten for income-eligible 3- and 4-years-olds. To address capacity constraints, private providers are expected to meet 50% of the demand for additional slots by the 2025-26 school year. The pandemic greatly contracted the number of private providers in Maryland. However, while other economic sectors recovered jobs lost during the pandemic, the child care industry continued to operate well below pre-pandemic workforce levels.
Priorities for the 2023 session include:
- Adequate and equitable funding of the Blueprint. Funding sources have been identified only through FY2028. Support for dedicating available funding surpluses (there is a $5.5 billion budget surplus) and generating future revenue growth for long-term Blueprint funding. Monitor the fiscal impact of the Blueprint implementation on local jurisdictions and make adjustments to offset any negative impact on local fiscal capacity.
- Monitor implementation of the Blueprint. Individual districts have begun developing local Blueprint implementation plans. However, the ability of the AIB and MSDE to provide adequate oversight are ongoing concerns. Advocate for transparency in Blueprint implementation and reporting to address these issues.
- Monitor legislation focused on addressing school discipline and behavioral health needs. Support for shifts away from the use of punitive discipline and developmentally/ethnically inappropriate practices to those promoting trauma-informed practices, implementing restorative approaches to discipline, and tracking disciplinary data to identify and/or address disparities.
- Address the educator shortage: Support for policies that make teaching an attractive profession, with salaries comparable to other professions, and improve teacher working conditions.
- Support for early education and preschool: Support efforts to expand access to early education and preschool and address capacity issues.
- Support for behavioral and mental health professionals. Monitor legislation that supports additional funding for adequate staffing to meet student behavioral and mental health needs in schools and provide wraparound supports for students, such as Community Schools.
- Privatization, vouchers and school choice. Oppose efforts to divert public funding away from public schools.
- Resource equity. Support equitable access to digital technology and school facilities.
Police Accountability 2023 Issue Paper
Police Accountability Reform
submitted by Ericka McDonald
The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan organization that works to influence
public policy through education and advocacy. The League of Women Voters advocates against systemic racism in the justice system and, at a minimum, for preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement. The League supports a criminal justice system that is just, effective, equitable, transparent, and that fosters public trust at all stages.
The Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 sought to make changes to limit police brutality and hold police accountable for misconduct by the communities they work on behalf of. The bill included clear limits for use of force by police, the creation of local Police Accountability Boards(PAB) to oversee a revised police misconduct investigation process that includes civilian oversight for the first time, as well as the release of misconduct investigation records which were previously inaccessible by the public.
The League of Women Voters is a member of the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability (MCJPA), which includes over 90 organizations that advocated for reforms that lead to the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021. In 2022 members of the MCJPA focused on the transparent creation of strong PABs in counties throughout Maryland and the monitoring the implementation of Anton’s Law. Throughout Maryland, the FOP and Police Departments attempted to limit the powers of the PABs and access to police misconduct records enabled by Anton’s Law, resulting in local advocacy efforts and lawsuits.
In addition to these ongoing efforts, the MCJPA is prioritizing two bills during the 2023 session :
Odor Searches - This bill will ban marijuana-based odor searches which is the source of many police interactions that lead to violence and death and disproportionately impact Black and brown Marylanders.
PAB Investigatory Powers - This bill will clarify language in the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 to allow local bodies to give PABs independent investigatory powers.
Protecting the Vote 2023 Issue Paper
PROTECTING THE VOTE
submitted by Janet Millenson
The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that voting is a fundamental citizen right that must be guaranteed. Since its beginning, the League has urged state, local and federal governments to reform election laws and procedures so that voters have an equal voice in the entire election process and are encouraged to participate.
The pandemic upended Maryland’s 2020 election process, but even though conditions have improved, 2022 made it clear we’re not going to return to the voting patterns of previous years. For one thing, mail-in ballots no longer amount to a mere five or six percent of the total ballots cast. In November’s election these represented more than a quarter of the total — over half a million. This change has major implications for the state and local Boards of Elections’ operations.
Another significant challenge in 2022 arose when the Primary Election date was postponed for three weeks as a final decennial redistricting plan worked its way through the courts. This date change led to a severe shortage of election workers and the need to relocate several polling places that had become unavailable. The ensuing delay in certifying the election results also shortened the time available to prepare ballots for November.
Despite the compressed timeline, the General Election went well for the most part. The State Board of Elections obtained court authorization to start processing the flood of mail-in ballots before Election Day, which helped enable statewide results to be certified in early December.
The League will continue to advocate for improvements in many of the areas we focused on last year: administration, access, and accountability. We anticipate that some issues can be resolved via regulations rather than legislation.
* ALLOW PROCESSING OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS BEFORE ELECTION DAY. It’s still not in statute. Last year the General Assembly did finally pass a bill (SB 163) that would have codified the ability of local Boards of Elections to deal with the vast increase of ballots returned by mail or drop box. (Our 2022 testimony in favor of SB 163 can be found on the MGA website here.) Maryland is the only state requiring all ballot processing to wait until after Election Day. Unfortunately, outgoing Governor Hogan vetoed SB 163 in late May because he disapproved of its other provisions, making it impossible for the legislature to override the veto. Although the option to start ballot processing early has been authorized on an emergency basis several times recently, we need to ensure it becomes permanent. The League will support this effort.
* MAKE OTHER IMPROVEMENTS TO THE VOTE-BY-MAIL PROCESS. Ballot tracking is a popular feature that should be enhanced to provide prompt updates on the status of voters’ mail-in ballots. This will help reduce the number of people who come in person to vote provisionally because they’re not sure if the ballot they put in a mailbox or drop box actually reached the Board of Elections. Also, if a mail-in ballot arrives on time but the oath is unsigned, voters should be offered options to “cure” the problem rather than have their ballot rejected. These upgrades may not require legislative mandates; they can be implemented by the state Board of Elections.
* ENSURE BETTER ACCESSIBILITY FOR ALL VOTERS. The League’s bedrock position on the election process is that it should increase voter participation and be equitable and accessible. Although much progress has been made in recent years to help voters with disabilities and to increase outreach to underserved populations, there are still gaps to be addressed. The League works closely with a variety of advocacy groups to push for laws and regulations that will accomplish this. We will continue to oppose bills that could disenfranchise qualified voters.
* REVIEW AND IMPROVE THE ELECTION PROCESS. Hundreds of experienced election workers stayed home in 2020 and didn’t return in 2022, leaving a large shortfall in many polling places. Offering higher stipends and flexible scheduling will make it easier to recruit and retain election workers. Board of Elections staffers are also underpaid for the essential, complex work they do. However, there also needs to be a better means to oversee the Boards and to ensure the transparency of major procurements.
Orphans Court 2023 Issue Paper
submitted by Ralph Watkins
In Maryland, the court that oversees the administration of the estates of residents who have died, and also resolves any disputes that arise over wills or estates, is called the Orphans’ Court.
Unlike the judges of all other Maryland courts, Orphans’ Court judges are nominated by the political parties and are not required to be attorneys, except in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Prince George’s County. In three jurisdictions, Harford, Howard, and Montgomery counties, the position of Orphans’ Court judge has been eliminated and those cases are heard by the Circuit Court judges. In all other counties, there are three Orphans’ Court judges, regardless of the population of the county. Accordingly, in the more populous counties the judges work full-time while in the smaller counties the judges’ position is part-time.
In 2021, a Task Force to Study the Maryland Orphans’ Court made recommendations to the General Assembly, including the elimination of partisan elections, lengthening the term from 4 to 8 years, and authorizing the Governor to appoint a judge to fill a vacancy.
The League supports allowing each county to choose whether to keep or eliminate its Orphans’ Court. (In 2022, the Maryland constitution was amended to eliminate the Orphans’ Court judges in Howard County, a change that required approval by both a majority of voters statewide and a majority of Howard County voters.) In addition, the League favors nonpartisan election of Orphans’ Court judges as well as allowing both attorneys and non-attorneys to serve as judges. The League position has also called for a change in the name of the court to more clearly describe its function.
Circuit Court 2023 Issue Paper
submitted by Ralph Watkins
Election of Judges – Maryland has an unusual process for choosing judges of Circuit Courts, the courts in which all jury trials are held. For the past 50 years, Maryland governors have relied on Judicial Nominating Commissions composed of attorneys and others to recommend candidates for appointment to all courts. While judges of the Supreme Court of Maryland, the Appellate Court of Maryland, and the District Courts are appointed by the Governor with confirmation by the state Senate, the judges of the Circuit Court are appointed by the Governor and are not subject to Senate approval. Upon appointment by the Governor, a Circuit Court judge takes office and begins to preside over cases, but must be elected by the voters in the next general election. In that election, any attorney who has been a member of the Maryland bar for at least 5 years can run against the appointed judge. These contested elections for Circuit Court judge are also unusual in that all candidates appear on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, but not on the nonpartisan ballots, so voters who are not affiliated with the two major parties are excluded from the first stage of the selection process.
The Circuit Court judge selection process has been subject to criticism for many years. In some instances, when there had been a pattern of failure to appoint African American or other minorities to the bench, there were successful challenges that led to a more diverse bench in some jurisdictions. In other cases, however, women and minority judges appointed by the governor were defeated by white male candidates. Thus, although contested elections can serve as a check on a governor’s abuse of the appointment power, they do not always serve this function effectively. Concerns have also been raised about the financing of judges’ election campaigns as the major contributors are lawyers who are likely to have cases before the judge during the election or shortly thereafter.
For the last several years, legislation to eliminate contested elections for Circuit Court judges has been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly but has not passed. The Maryland courts and LWVMD have supported this legislation. Similarly, legislation was introduced to permit unaffiliated voters to vote for Circuit Court judges. To address these longstanding issues, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Maryland appointed a Judicial Selection Workgroup in September 2022 to review the entire process for choosing Circuit Court judges with a goal of making recommendations for improvement. Ralph Watkins was appointed to the Workgroup representing the League of Women Voters of Maryland. The Workgroup heard presentations on academic studies conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System and others, as well as public testimony. The Workgroup will meet in January to discuss whether consensus can be reached on recommendations to present to the 2023 session of the General Assembly.
The League of Women Voters of Maryland supports the Governor appointing judges from a list of candidates recommended by a merit selection panel, with retention elections used to determine if judges would serve additional terms.