Legislature advancing bills to expand AG’s authority to enforce civil rights laws, oversee correctional facilities
With less than two weeks until the Maryland legislative session ends, part of Attorney General Anthony Brown’s agenda is close to winning support it needs from the legislature.
One of Brown’s top priorities — granting his office authority to enforce federal and state civil rights laws and bring class-action lawsuits — has been approved in the Senate.
Senate Bill 540 would prohibit the attorney general from bringing any civil rights action against “any unit or employee of state or local government…” or against an employee working or an agent working for the government or political subdivision “who is acting under the color of law.”
Although it received Senate approval by a 36-9 vote earlier this month, it also must gain approval in the House of Delegates where the Senate measure is slated for a hearing in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. A House version of the bill, House Bill 772, received initial approval by the full chamber Tuesday.
Under provisions of the bill, the attorney general’s office would work in collaboration with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights — the independent agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws and oversees discrimination cases in matters of employment, housing, public accommodations and state contracts.
The House bill received initial approval in the chamber Tuesday after Republican delegates offered two amendments that were rejected.
House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) offered an amendment to ensure that a private attorney and the attorney general’s office wouldn’t sue at the same time over allegations that a person or company committed a civil rights violation.
“A lot of times the private lawyers will use that to say, ‘Hey, we’ll back off…the big bad state of Maryland coming after you if you pay us money.’ It becomes very difficult for small businesses and just regular folks to deal with these types of situations,” he said after the House session. “We should be trying people who are really doing wrong.”
Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) presented an amendment that sought to grant a defendant “reasonable attorney fees” if that person or company paid for legal counsel to challenge a suit from the attorney general.
Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the bill incorporates current state law that a defendant could recover legal fees if a case had been brought by a prosecutor “in bad faith.”
Buckel agreed with Clippinger about the law, but said the court “very, very seldom” agrees to require payment of a defendant’s legal fees.
In the Senate chamber, another attorney general bill – Senate Bill 87 – won preliminary approval and drew support from both Republicans and Democrats.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Sens. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) and Chris West (R-Baltimore County), would establish a correctional ombudsman in the attorney general’s office to oversee the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services that manages a dozen state prisons as well as a correctional annex in Westover on the Eastern Shore.
The Judicial Proceedings Committee voted unanimously Thursday to change several portions of the bill such as creating a correctional ombudsman unit, hiring a full-time ombudsman and requiring the state budget to provide salaries for staff, rent, equipment, supplies and general operating expenses.
Hettleman introduced an amendment Tuesday to clarify that the correctional ombudsman would not be one person but a unit and authorizing it to “review all reports of disciplinary actions, grievances and grievance dispositions by the [department of correctional services.]”
Another amendment approved on the Senate floor came from Sen. Minority Whip Justin Ready (R-Carroll). It specifies that the attorney general will appoint the ombudsman with the “advice and consent of the Senate,” that the ombudsman would serve a term of five years, and that at the end of a term, the ombudsman would continue to serve until a successor “is appointed and qualifies.”
After Sen. Charles Sydnor (D-Baltimore County), who served as floor leader on the bill, said Ready’s amendment would be accepted as friendly, several senators smiled and quietly cheered.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee recently removed a provision in the bill that would have granted the ombudsman power to subpoena an individual to either provide sworn testimony or produce documentary evidence.
“I think we will have an opportunity to create this entity and…come back next year and put that in there,” Hettleman said.
The House version sponsored by Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) didn’t make it out of the Judiciary Committee, so the Senate legislation must receive final approval and clear the House Rules Committee to go through the approval process in that chamber by the final legislative day April 10.
“If it passes the House, [the legislation] will have a positive impact and will be able to provide transparency and accountability to a system that needs more,” Hettleman said.
‘Resources to do the job‘
Attorney General Brown stopped by the House of Delegates on Tuesday afternoon after the hearing and talked about the importance of civil rights enforcement and a correctional ombudsman.
“The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights does a wonderful job, but we’re going to be able to bring larger cases on a larger scale, make a bigger impact, and really send a strong message that in Maryland practices of discrimination are not tolerated,” he said in a brief interview. “That we will, where the evidence suggests we will, investigate, enforce and remediate, or prosecute violations.”
About the correctional ombudsman unit, Brown said he isn’t sure how many staff would be needed. However, he said the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent agency in the attorney general’s office, has about four people who make announced and unannounced inspections and visits to facilities, assess programming and report to the General Assembly.
“It’s hard to say what the staffing needs would be…” he said. “I think it’s an important function that needs to be performed in Maryland to be able to monitor and inspect and receive complaints about treatment within the criminal justice system and its facilities, you got to give me the resources to do the job, or else we really can’t point to much that’s been accomplished.”