Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick) presented a bill before the House Government and Operations Committee Thursday afternoon seeking to limit the power of Maryland’s governor during a state of emergency.
“Democracy is not guaranteed to humanity,” the controversial lawmaker said as he began his presentation to the committee. “Yet, with one stroke of the pen on March 5, 2020, Maryland democracy became shrouded in the darkness of political mystique and a quasi-constitutional dictatorship when the executive orders began to shut down not only the private life of America, but also ordered the surrounding of this state capital with military vehicles to intimidate potentially our votes, resulting in the last 10 months of closures of the legislature and the courts.”
Cox pushed further, reciting the definition of the word “dictator” from “The Dictionary by Merriam-Webster.”
“A person granted absolute emergency power,” he read.
“Think about that,” Cox said. “We’ve been on the edge of, in [what] some would say when locked in their homes without redress, fully under a dictatorship for the past 10 months.”
Maryland Matters reached out to the governor’s office for comment, but one was not made immediately available.
One of Cox’s main complaints is that the legislature has little to no power to review, tailor and vote on the orders Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has issued since the state of emergency began. Cox said that “for the most part” elected officials at the county level are required to vote on emergency measures once each week.
“The House of Delegates should not be less powerful than a county council or governor’s unelected Law Office,” Cox asserted.
Under House Bill 17, called “The Consent of The Governed Act,” a state of emergency could last no longer than 14 days unless the governor convenes a special session and the General Assembly votes to end the state of emergency early or to extend it an additional 14 days.
Members of the executive branch would no longer be allowed to order members of the General Assembly, the judiciary or the public to stay home or to wear a face mask. The executive branch also would not be allowed to prohibit people from assembling or to limit capacity at churches, schools and businesses.
And Cox’s measure would prohibit the governor from applying an emergency order to any citizen unless that order received a two-thirds majority vote from the General Assembly within three-days of its issuance. Additionally, all executive orders must be available to the public on an easily accessible platform, and no order could mandate vaccinations.
Businesses and religious facilities could be closed by emergency order only if independent experts verify that the buildings are not in compliance with state code, or if the order gives enough advance notice that it may be appealed.
In the case that an emergency order is issued, people who deliberately violate directives issued during a public health emergency would face only a $50 fine rather than a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.
House Bill 17 would also put the burden of proof on the executive branch to show that the emergency order is necessary and not overly broad. Individuals who sue for relief for losses incurred under the state of emergency and prove that they’ve suffered damages would be reimbursed for their legal fees and other costs.
‘We are, in fact, a democracy’
Cox urged committee members to consider the numbers. He said the restaurant industry has lost over “$1 billion in private earnings and equity.” Death rates will rise by 3% and life expectancy will drop by 5% over the next 15 years, adding to “a staggering almost 900,000 U.S. additional deaths, because of the lockdowns, not the virus,” he said.
“But even considering those facts … ‘The Consent of the Governed Act’ is not submitted to establish what emergency policy should be pursued during COVID-19 or any other emergency,” Cox explained. “It is instead to reestablish and reassert that we are, in fact, a democracy with a framework of a constitutional republic.”
Cox likened Maryland’s current state of emergency to the Chinese government’s oppression and slaying of Uighur Muslims.
According to The New York Times, the U.S. State Department, earlier this month, accused the Chinese government of genocide and crimes against humanity for its treatment of the Uighur population, who, reportedly, have been forcibly sterilized and put into internment camps.
“At this very moment in China, thousands of Uighur Muslims languish in concentration camps because of the emergency powers of the state, while millions of Chinese go about their lives normally,” Cox told the committee. “And here in Maryland, pastors have been fined and churches threatened for mere worship or even giving the Eucharist or other activities while big box stores and fast food places remain open.”
Tim Walters, chairman and co-founder of Reopen Maryland, testified in favor of Cox’s legislation on the basis that Hogan is abusing an article of Maryland’s Constitution.
“We are not seeking to remove any authority from the governor, but to assure the governor’s authority is bound to oversight and in constitutional partnership with the General Assembly,” Walters told the committee. “We cannot, as free men and women, allow the government, especially any one elected official or unelected bureaucrat, to challenge individual liberties and suspend constitutionally protected freedoms at all, much less indefinitely.”
The Prince George’s County Young Democrats submitted as testimony against Cox’s measure a press release calling for the General Assembly to expel Cox and certain others from office.
Regarding Cox, their list of demands read: “Immediate resignation or expulsion of Delegate Dan Cox, a sitting member of the House Judiciary Committee, and all sitting state legislators involved in the white supremacist coup attempt on January 6, 2021.”
Cox has faced backlash from the public, House and Senate leadership, fellow lawmakers and the governor for his participation at a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that led to an insurrection, and fatalities, at the Capitol. In the middle of the attack, he wrote a tweet calling former Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor.”
The tweet has since been deleted and Cox took his Twitter account offline for several days. As of Thursday, it had been reactivated and set to private.
Del. Sid Saab (R-Anne Arundel) decried the Prince George’s County Young Democrats’ written testimony, calling it “inappropriate.”
“It has nothing to do with this bill. It’s calling for the expulsion of a couple delegates and investigation all that, and I think it’s in bad taste and inappropriate to be testimony and … I wasn’t sure if that’s an appropriate time to bring it up or not, but I’d just like to have this testimony removed from this bill.”
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City), who was chairing Thursday’s bill hearing, said he had never heard of a request like that before.
“My first reaction would be that the First Amendment protects the right to petition the government,” Rosenberg said. “So, therefore, I think we will accept all testimony, and if the delegate wishes to have it stricken from the record I think that’s something you need to take up with the attorney general’s office.”