After the unnecessary and disturbing mudslinging in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (JPR) earlier this month, I have been thinking about the role of character and bravery in the work of lawmakers.
In the history of legislative leadership and action for the greater good, there are a few examples that should make us proud. My favorite is when President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to Congress in 1965 in the “we shall overcome speech” about the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. His speech and support came about at the insistence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other great civil rights activists bloodied by the violence of the Selma to Montgomery march.
MLK’s voice cast a light on the truth of racial injustice for Congress. In that moment, LBJ and the Democrats knew that they would lose the political support of the South for years, perhaps decades. It was a great political risk. Nonetheless, doing the right thing was of greater importance, and, in that moment, LBJ and others in Congress went from being good leaders to great leaders.
Shall we ask the same of Maryland lawmakers?
Desperate institutional bullying by those in power and those representing the powerful was on full display in JPR on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. I testified at that hearing on SB 134, as I did last year in the House with a packed “standing-room-only” group of brave survivors of sexual abuse. A trio of lawmakers — Senators Robert Cassilly, Chris West, and Michael Hough, stole Chairman Will Smith’s gavel and launched into a raucous attack on witnesses and on their colleague, Sen. Shelly Hettleman.
They reached for the sword when their armor was thin. The angry bullying and insults were an attempt to muddy the waters and protect the powerful.
As Senator Cassilly read selective quotes from the United States Supreme Court, I cringed at the angry tone in which he held them. Each of his selections could have easily been met by a reasonable response, exception, or limitation found in law or public policy by that same honorable court, but without rebuke he monopolized the stage. Due process is not an absolute right; there are exceptions, and those exceptions are based on sound public policy and the intent of the legislature.
Sadly, Cassilly suffocated the opportunity for honest discourse by his repeated sexist browbeating and misleading mansplaining. Meanwhile, former Senate Judicial Proceedings chair Bobby Zirkin, now a hired lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference and other powerful institutions, smiled on in complicity, despite the change from his position in 2019 — supported it then, but, lo and behold, not now!
Senator Hough joined the attack by suggesting Del. CT Wilson, the original sponsor of the legislation, made a promise in cement during negotiations on amendments to his 2017 bill. Cassilly took no time to attack Del. Wilson’s character, attempting to use Sen. Hettleman and a witness to call him a liar.
To be clear, Del. Wilson kept his promise. He kept his promise to the bill he understood was being introduced. There was no meeting of the minds between Del. Wilson and those negotiating the amendments proposed by the Maryland Catholic Conference and offered by none other than then-chair Bobby Zirkin, the current lobbyist for the MCC.
True, Delegate Wilson agreed not to go back, but without knowledge of the implications of a “poison pill,” a so-called statute of repose inserted in the uncodified language of the bill. Wilson believed, albeit erroneously, that others were acting in good faith. Even Zirkin said he did not intend permanent immunity to be part of the bill — although this is odd since it was in fact Zirkin who introduced the amendment.
CT Wilson is a man of great character. He made a good faith promise while others were artfully duplicitous.
Here are some important facts that were drowned out when the trio of senators commandeered the hearing:
- There is a national movement to reform and revive statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse. Since 2002 there have been 24 revival laws: in 17 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam. Some states have passed multiple windows. This year alone 21 states have introduced statute of limitation reform legislation; 10 are windows. The response to the epidemic of child sexual abuse is clear — lawmakers are acting. Maryland is hardly an outlier.
Child sexual abuse is an epidemic. The best science says over 13% of all children will be sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday! Sandusky, Nassar, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and Epstein cases are the tip of an ugly iceberg.
The science of traumatology shows that the average age of disclosure of child sexual abuse is 52 years old, far above Maryland’s current law.
Civil statute of limitations reform serves three compelling interests: 1) exposing hidden predators; 2) shifting the cost of abuse from the victim and taxpayers to the bad guys; and 3) educating the public, parents, and grandparents on the prevalence, scope, and danger of this epidemic.
So, to those good leaders in JPR and the Senate, follow the House’s unanimous lead last year, reject the self-serving arguments of the rich and powerful and those that represent their interests. Senators, you have an opportunity to be great leaders. Vote with your conscience for the greater good.
Do what is right — legislate good public policy and let the courts hear survivors and decide issues of credibility and constitutionality.
Justice and children are waiting on you.
— KATHRYN ROBB
The writer, an attorney, is executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy.