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Government & Politics Justice

Rift Deepens Between Sen. Smith and the ACLU

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair William C. Smith Jr. watches a vote tally. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

A blog post published earlier this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has widened a growing rift between the venerable organization and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery).

Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland and author of the blog post, alleged that differences in opinion on legislative matters have prompted Smith to impose a “No ACLU Rule” — meaning he won’t meet with representatives of the civil rights organization.

“The goal of the ACLU of Maryland is to dismantle white supremacy and its systems that intentionally marginalize the needs and vision of people most impacted by injustice,” she wrote in the blog post, which carried the headline, “White supremacy is the foul soup we all swim in — and we’re done treading water.”

“Senator Will Smith is one of those powerful leaders who appears to be uncomfortable with our approach.”

The split between the civil rights organization and Smith could have profound policy implications for the state going forward — and could also impact long-standing alliances between the ACLU and Democrats who control the General Assembly.

The ACLU feels that its policy priorities routinely get watered down in Smith’s committee, which regularly deals with criminal and civil rights legislation. But certain lawmakers are privately upset about the organization’s tactics, and some have pledged not to meet with the group in solidarity with their colleague.

Smith, the first Black senator from Montgomery County and the first Black chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, is arguably the most progressive lawmaker ever to hold that powerful position. He has regularly received death threats laced with racial slurs since he began taking up some of the legislature’s most emotionally charged issues when he became committee chair in 2020.

In addition to the blog post published earlier this month, the ACLU supported a car rally a year ago that protested outside the homes of Smith and Judicial Proceedings Vice Chair Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery).

“If that’s effective advocacy, then they don’t belong in the political discourse,” former Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) said. “If somebody came to my home … their stuff would never have seen the light of day.”

Yanet Amanuel, the interim public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, called the blog post a “last-ditch effort” as the session began to get busy — especially after “learning about how…. deep the animosity is [in the Senate] towards the ACLU and particularly Dana and myself,” she said.

The advocacy organization’s leaders are particularly upset that they have not been able to meet with Smith at all this legislative session, given that his committee takes up many of their prioritized bills each year.

According to Shelley’s post, the ACLU requested a meeting with Smith in early February but has yet to receive a response.

In a news release issued earlier this year, the ACLU announced it would prioritize legislation to legalize cannabis and provide community reparations for the war on drugs and merge the long-standing Baltimore City Civilian Review Board into the police accountability boards mandated under a law passed in 2021.

The Cannabis Legalization and Reparations for the War on Drugs Act has not received a vote from the Senate Finance Committee.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), backed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), is sponsoring a bill to have the question of cannabis legalization added to the 2022 general election ballot, which may explain why the Senate bill is languishing.

The Civilian Review Board legislation is awaiting approval from the Baltimore City Senate Delegation before it receives a vote from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Its House crossfile, House Bill 991 sponsored by Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D-Baltimore City), advanced to the Senate last week.

Amanuel also mentioned that a bill to increase opportunities for medical and geriatric parole and the Child Interrogation Protections Act were being closely monitored by her organization this session.

The medical parole bill, or Senate Bill 774, has not been voted out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Its crossfile, sponsored by Del. J. Sandra Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel), passed out of the House chamber earlier this month.

Sen. Jill P. Carter’s Child Interrogation Protection Act passed out of the Senate chamber with a veto-proof majority.

Amanuel declined to identify who told them that Smith is freezing ACLU leaders out, saying she’d “​​rather not reduce this to a personal conflict,” in order to focus on their policy differences with the Senate.

“The ACLU is pushing in a direction of challenging white supremacy and systems of oppression in a meaningful way and that these are issues that the Senate and the status quo typically shy away from,” Amanuel said.

The ACLU of Maryland has not come into similar conflict with the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Clippinger, who is white.

In a statement Tuesday, Smith said he became a lawmaker because he cares “deeply about justice and the people of Maryland.”

“I don’t question other people’s motives and would hope that people afford me the same courtesy as we all work to solve complex problems,” he said.

But he declined to say whether he was refusing to meet with ACLU leaders or whether he would be willing to do so in the future.

‘The time for business as usual has passed’

Zirkin, whose politics are considerably more centrist than Smith’s and who frequently clashed with progressive groups when he was chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, rushed to Smith’s defense during a phone interview last week. He said that, while the two disagree on a series of issues, Smith is “smart and caring and compassionate.”

During his tenure as committee chair, Smith has pushed policies to the Senate floor that removed the governor from the parole process, helped usher sweeping police reform policy to the governor’s desk and gave incarcerated Marylanders who were convicted as minors of major violent crimes a second chance at sentencing.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has a history of drawn-out committee debate and a tendency to heavily amend legislation before it reaches the Senate chamber, and much of the ACLU’s frustration with Smith is rooted in the 2021 police reform package.

Carter (D-Baltimore City) sponsored legislation during the 2021 legislative session to repeal and replace the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. But a series of amendments introduced by Waldstreicher and Sen. Michael A. Jackson (D-Prince George’s) weakened the bill.

After it was voted out of committee, she called it, “The Reinstatement of the LEOBR.”

That turn of events was a surprise to the ACLU and other advocates.

“We worked with [Smith] in the interim … on the bill — he said that a final bill product was something that he would be proud to defend on the floor,” Amanuel said. “But what we ultimately ended up with is a much weaker version.”

During final legislative debate, Carter’s repeal bill was ditched for measures adopted in the omnibus policing bill sponsored by Jones, the House speaker.

Amanuel said such efforts to make legislation more palatable to Republicans perpetuate white supremacy. She argued that in Democrat-heavy Annapolis, there is no need to find support from Republicans on some police reform bills, because they “ultimately vote against the bill, anyways.”

“If it comes down to the floor, then let us deal with the floor. But I don’t think that’s an excuse to put out weaker bills [from committee], especially when we’re talking about people’s lives,” she said.

Amanuel said that the animosity goes beyond the organization’s dashed hopes of moving unamended police reform bills: it’s an issue of Smith “being in a position of power and watering down the bills we’re working for and not giving our bills a fair chance.”

Asked how Smith, in his historic role as the first Black chair of the powerful committee, upholds white supremacy, Amanuel said that being Black and maintaining the status quo are not mutually exclusive.

“That happens all the time, unfortunately,” she said.

In her blog post, Shelley alleged that Smith feeds into a system that dismisses and diminishes the advocacy and leadership of Black women.

“Dangerous and racist stereotypes often marginalize the leadership and voices of Black women as being too angry and too aggressive,” she wrote in her blog post. “After 90 years of the ACLU of Maryland’s advocacy for racial justice and the rights of people experiencing the most insidious oppression, it is clear white supremacy is the foul soup we all swim in.”

“We know creating lasting, equitable change is possible, and the time for business as usual has passed,” Shelley continued.

‘That is no longer their reputation in politics’

Since becoming committee chair in 2020, Smith says he has regularly received threats from constituents frustrated with his policy perspective or the committee’s work.

An email dated March 10, 2022 — the same day Shelley’s blog post was published, but apparently unrelated — came from an anti-abortion advocate who called him a “human cancer” and a “DEADMAN[sic] WALKING.”

“Some GOOD citizen is going to stick an icepick in your temple…and it will be WELL DESERVED!” wrote the disgruntled constituent. “I won’t pray for you. I WILL pray that someone KILLS you because YOU are scum…”

Threats to lawmakers are investigated by the Maryland State Police, but actionable threats — like an icepick to the temple — are cause for particular concern and can be exacerbated by leading angry people to someone’s home, lawmakers said.

Tensions between the ACLU and legislators have been growing as the General Assembly has taken on more criminal and racial justice issues. But the blog post specifically mentioning Smith has had a different effect — and there is some talk among lawmakers of shunning the ACLU’s representatives in response.

In June 2021, the ACLU of Maryland released a blog post about racism in Annapolis without naming any individual lawmakers.

ACLU spokesperson Meredith Curtis wrote in an email that the 2021 blog’s purpose “was to spotlight the culture of white supremacy that shapes public policy and the themes of oppressive language we heard during the session.”

Asked if she and Shelley would meet with Smith if the opportunity arose, Amanuel said they would.

“I think we … would like to have a conversation and see if there’s a way to move forward,” she said. “But this is the direction that we are going to continue to go … so it wouldn’t change us supporting or centering community, but hopefully we’ll be able to get to an understanding of … how to be able to move forward … if that’s possible.”

Other senators have voiced concern for the committee chair, who regularly receives death threats, regarding the ACLU’s support directing protesters to his home.

Senate President Pro Tem Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) denounced the ACLU’s support of the demonstration last year outside Smith’s home.

Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s).

“​​We all understand that we will not agree with every stakeholder on every issue — passions and tempers sometimes escalate,” she said. “But serving in elected office does not mean we invite those with whom we have policy and philosophical differences to follow us home. We deserve a safe space with our families.”

Griffith called Smith’s tangle with the organization “unfortunate.”

“It is very unfortunate when racial name-calling is used against a person who has demonstrated a commitment to civil rights,” said Griffith. “As a Black woman, I feel it diminishes the real struggle we have been engaged in for centuries.”

Zirkin acknowledged that criticism is expected in positions like Smith’s.

“Somebody’s always upset at a decision,” he said, noting that the Judicial Proceedings Committee handles some of the most emotionally charged legislation in the Senate.

Zirkin recalled battling Progressive Maryland over the Comprehensive Crime Bill of 2018, a bipartisan bill that increased sentences for repeat, violent offenders, especially those whose crimes were committed with firearms. It also strengthened penalties for the use of a firearm for drug trafficking offenses, witness intimidation, and obstruction of justice.

“We have no time for apathy in the face of genocide,” the organization wrote on its website at the time — a line that particularly offended Zirkin, who is Jewish.

Zirkin’s approach to the criticism was much more public and — though he didn’t mention Progressive Maryland by name — he and other lawmakers, including Smith, spoke against their post that year on the Senate floor.

“Things like this are a stain on political discourse … it is identical to the Donald Trump-Tucker Carlson brand of politics,” Zirkin said of the ACLU’s post. “It’s a disgrace.”

Zirkin said that, when he was first elected, the ACLU produced “really erudite” letters and policy arguments that were always based on the law and precedent. Even when he disagreed, he said, their legal arguments were thought-provoking.

“It was a group I was proud to get endorsed by back in the day because it meant I cared about the law,” said Zirkin. “That is no longer their reputation in politics.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the numbers and posture of certain prioritized bills by the ACLU, and to clarify that the Maryland State Police investigate threats against lawmakers.