Stephanie Wilkinson told Maryland lawmakers in Annapolis Wednesday that personal protection for judges would prevent families from enduring future heartache.
As she dabbed a tissue underneath her nose, Wilkinson said a man began to search online for her family’s address in July. Three months later in October after a divorce proceeding, the man shot and killed her husband, Washington County Circuit Court Judge Andrew F. Wilkinson, in front of their home.
“My family is the victim of an attack on a cornerstone of our country, our judicial process,” Wilkinson said Wednesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “If we do not step in and offer our judiciary the protection and the privacy they should have, we will surely water down the strength of the judicial system by getting less qualified candidates to fill those positions.”
Wilkinson testified in support of Senate Bill 575 that’s sponsored by Sen. Paul D. Corderman (R-Washington and Frederick).
Both then walked across the street to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in support House Bill 664, sponsored by Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore), chair of the committee.
The bills, named after Wilkinson’s husband, would allow a “protected individual,” or the Office of Information Privacy in the Administrative Office of the Courts, to request that a governmental entity or person not publish personal information on the internet, social media, or “social networks,” or remove the information from any existing publication.
A “protected individual” includes a current or retired judge from a district, circuit, or federal court, a magistrate judge who resides in the state and a current or retired commissioner of the district court.
Those individuals’ spouses, children and other dependents “who reside in the same household” would also be protected.
Some of the personal information that would not be available online are home addresses, home and mobile telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, license plates and places of worship.
Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, asked about a “place of employment” listed as personal information.
Matthew J. Fader, chief justice of the Maryland Supreme Court, who summarized the merits of the bill, said that language will be corrected in the legislation to specify an immediate family member’s job.
Earlier this week, Gov. Wes Moore (D) nominated Kirk C. Downey to fill Wilkinson’s position on the Washington County Circuit Court.
“This is a bittersweet moment,” Moore said. “Today, we thank and celebrate Kirk C. Downey for raising his hand to serve. The Washington County Circuit Court has gained a talented legal mind and a faithful officer of the law. At the same time, we also remember the life and legacy of Judge Andrew Wilkinson, who was taken from us far too soon. Judge Wilkinson made our state more fair and more just — and now, it’s up to us to stand together to carry forward his work.”
Downey has served as Washington County attorney since December 2018 and has spent most of his legal career in that office.
‘The committee was moved by the words of everyone’
According to the bill, a governmental entity must “promptly” acknowledge receipt of a request in writing by certified mail or email. Then it must take reasonable steps to ensure the personal information is not public. If information is public, then it must be removed in 72 hours after receipt of the request.
A protected person or the courts’ information privacy office can file for declaratory relief, injunctive relief, or attorney’s fees if a governmental entity violates this provision.
Any individual can also receive a similar violation.
If a person “knows or reasonably should know” publishing information poses an imminent or serious threat that results in assault, harassment, trespass, or malicious destruction of property, that person could be charged with a misdemeanor and face up to 18 months in jail, a fine up to $5,000, or both.
Meanwhile, the legislation also proposes to create a task force to assess the safety of judicial facilities. Some of the work would include identifying the number of security officers who should be present during a circuit or district court proceeding, assessing minimum qualifications for security officers and developing a plan to address any security deficiencies that may exist in courthouses.
A report with recommendations would be due by Jan. 1, 2025.
A friendly amendment was requested by representatives from the Office of the Public Defender and the Maryland State Bar Association to also serve on the task force.
Jason DeLoach, president of the bar association, reminded the House committee that a similar bill didn’t pass last year.
“It was foreseeable back then that this could happen, and it’s foreseeable as we’re sitting here today with a tragic example,” he said. “It’s not enough to name a courthouse after [Wilkinson]. That’s great. It’s not enough to put a plaque on the wall. That’s not going to make our judiciary safe. We need substantive change.”
Last year, Clippinger said, there were different versions of the bill that lawmakers couldn’t reconcile in time.
“It’s terrible that [the bill] had to come together in this way,” he said after the hearing. “We’re going to do our due diligence. Make sure we’re not crossing the lines on ethics or anything else. We’ll move this as expeditiously as possible.”
He continued: “The committee was moved by the words of everyone today. There are a lot of really difficult issues we deal with, but this one was profoundly challenging.”