Attorney general seeking power to enforce civil rights laws in Maryland — like other nearby top prosecutors
A store owner in Baltimore City accused an African American shopper, who was with his children, of theft and called the police. A security tape showed no theft and the parties later agreed to a monetary settlement.
In neighboring Baltimore County, a man claimed his employer fired him after he failed a physical. Both parties agreed to settle the dispute for $75,000.
An African American customer presented documents to purchase a rifle in Anne Arundel County, but was denied service from a white sales associate. The customer presented the same documents at different businesses and was able to buy a rifle. After an investigation, the vendor that rejected the customer any service “reimbursed” that person $229, the price of rifle at the other store.
These are just three of the slightly more than 2,100 of complaints filed in the past three years investigated by the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. The independent agency enforces anti-discrimination laws and oversees discrimination cases focused on employment, housing, public accommodations and state contracts.
“We not only accept individual complaints alleging unlawful discrimination…but we also conduct education and outreach efforts as a more proactive attempt to level the playing field,” the commission’s Executive Director Alvin Gillard said in a recent interview. “[We want] to help folks understand the importance of opportunity and inclusion and also to promote equity so that all Marylanders can benefit from a robust civil rights program.”
Although the commission has been permitted since 1968 to administer and enforce fair housing, employment and public accommodations laws, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown (D) believes the state can do better.
During his swearing-in ceremony Jan. 3, Brown noted that Maryland is the fourth-most diverse state in the country – and the most diverse jurisdiction east of the Mississippi River.
“Maryland reflects where America is going,” Brown said. “So what deeply troubles me is the racial and ethnic disparities and inequities that still exist in Maryland, motivated by bias and even overt discrimination in housing, in the marketplace, in the workplace and in opportunities.”
He is pursuing legislation in Annapolis that would grant the Office of the Attorney General powers to conduct civil rights enforcement beyond the civil commission’s scope to handle individual complaints and grievances.
The measure would allow the attorney general to investigate discrimination in mortgage lending, check-cashing and fraudulent business practices.
More importantly, it would grant the attorney general’s office statutory authority to enforce federal and state civil rights laws and bring class action lawsuits.
According to the attorney general’s office, several other states including Delaware, West Virginia and Virginia permit civil rights enforcement powers for its top prosecutors.
A hearing on the proposed Maryland bill is scheduled for Feb. 28 in the Senate.
“Right now, the [Maryland] attorney general has very limited tools,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said during a briefing with reporters Feb. 10. “We’re going to have a very robust conversation about what is the right scope and where are places the attorney general can be proactive in trying to reduce discrimination in our industries and marketplaces. And, frankly, it’s good for commerce for the attorney general to have these types of powers because what we know is that discrimination in the marketplace is bad for everyone.”
The House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing on the bill March 1.
Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the committee, said in a brief interview he hasn’t reviewed the bill in-depth.
“I look forward to what this would look like and how this would work hand-in-hand with other agencies that already do this, or maybe independently from what other agencies do,” he said. “Broadly, we do need to ensure…[and] protect everyone’s civil rights as Americans. It’s what makes us America. In principle and in the broad scheme of things, I do understand and I get it. How would this work [and] what would the broader effect of the bill be. That’s what I hope to learn more about on March 1.”
According to the legislation, the attorney general’s office would conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if a civil rights violation occurred.
The office would be allowed to subpoena witnesses, administer and examine individuals under oaths and obtain “records, books, papers, contracts and other documents.”
A civil action would be filed in a circuit court where the alleged violator resides or has a principal place of business, or where the alleged violation took place.
An action would begin “not later than three years after the discovery, occurrence, or termination, whichever occurs last, of the alleged civil rights violation.”
If a violation occurred, the first offense would be a civil penalty of $10,000. A second or subsequent violation increases to $25,000.
Fees collected from a violation or settlement agreement would go into a Civil Rights Enforcement Fund for the attorney general’s office and Maryland Commission on Civil Rights to investigate and prosecute civil rights violations, and conduct education and outreach activities.
“Money expended from the fund for the enforcement activities of the attorney general and the commission is supplemental and is not intended to take the place of funding that would otherwise be appropriated for the attorney general or the commission,” according to the bill.
The legislation also requires both agencies coordinate referrals to avoid duplication of efforts and promote collaboration.
That’s just fine with Gillard, the commission’s executive director.
“The most important thing, if the bill is successful, is the ability of the attorney general’s office to look at matters of civil rights on a broader level [and] a larger scale,” he said. “So that more folks are impacted by the successful engagement, investigation, prosecution of the attorney general’s office. It’s something that we feel could be quite beneficial for Marylanders.”
‘Bring communities together’
In three annual reports, the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights summarized how certain forms of discrimination still exist in the state.
In each report, employment discrimination complaints overwhelmingly were the most investigated cases. However, the total numbers of cases decreased each year as follows:
- Fiscal year 2020 – 770 cases (609 employment; 123 housing; 33 public accommodations; zero state contracts).
- Fiscal year 2021 – 716 cases (519 employment; 159 housing; 34 public accommodations; four state contracts).
- Fiscal year 2022 – 623 cases (461 employment; 120 housing; 36 public accommodations; six state contracts).
According to the annual report released last month, about 45% of the entire caseload came from two jurisdictions: Baltimore City registered the most at 159 and Baltimore County came in second at 123.
However, more cases could’ve been investigated statewide with more staff and technology resources, Gillard said.
The independent agency currently has 37 employees, but he said up to 10 more people would improve the office. Those positions include seven investigators to assess complaints, at least two outreach workers to educate the public about civil rights and participate in various activities and events, and an attorney to support the commission’s general counsel office.
“We are always challenged by having inadequate staff to keep up with the number of complaints that are filed so that we are able to…investigate those complaints in a timely manner,” he said. “These are the kinds of resources that we need to continue to be effective [and] to bring communities together.”
The commission also hosts and coordinates forums, listening sessions and other events throughout the state on housing, gender discrimination and other civil rights topics. It will co-host a Black History Month book talk with the City of Bowie Diversity Committee on Feb. 25 at Barnes and Noble.
“A large part of [building a network] is our ability to partner with like-minded organizations and individuals who have as a part of its mission the promotion of fairness and equity and opportunity,” Gillard said. “We’ve made progress tremendous progress over the last 50 years…[but] the work for civil rights continues.”