House Judiciary draws protests
Women's caucus complains of committee's treatment of witnesses
ANNAPOLIS The House Judiciary Committee is under fire from lawmakers and advocates for perceived mistreatment of domestic violence victims and other witnesses who allegedly have been bullied and interrogated during bill hearings.
While the 22-member panel has long been regarded as one of the most probing and unbending in the General Assembly, numerous legislators are concerned that the committee has crossed the line several times this year and is now regarded as an unwelcome venue for members of the public.
"They're out of control," said Del. Sue Kullen, who chairs the Women Legislators of Maryland, which is known informally as the women's caucus.
She pointed to a bill hearing last month on legislation that proposed changing the standard of proof by which a protective order is issued as a prime example of the committee's mistreatment of witnesses.
Among those testifying was Dr. Amy Castillo, whose estranged husband drowned the couple's three young children at a Baltimore city hotel in March 2008.
Kullen (D-Dist. 27B) of Port Republic and others, including several Judiciary Committee members, said Castillo was virtually cross-examined and almost accused of lying to the panel, breaking an unwritten committee rule that victims are treated compassionately.
"There's a gentle way to get your point across, and I think we've lost our way," said Del. Susan K. McComas (R-Dist. 35B) of Bel Air, an attorney who has served on the committee since 2003.
Not everyone sees it the same way.
Many bills that come before the committee have wide-ranging impact on the rule of law, so members tend to be aggressive in their questioning of witnesses, said Del. Kevin Kelly (D-Dist. 1B) of Cumberland, who has served on the committee during his entire 20-year tenure in Annapolis.
"You've got to be very careful when you're making laws to try to separate emotion from the ramifications of implementation," he said.
The rigid approach should not be mistaken for disrespect, said House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Upper Marlboro.
"Our committee does not just sit back. They want to get into the merits," he said Thursday. "There are questions that need to be answered so we can make the proper decisions."
But Kullen delivered a letter Thursday to House Speaker Michael E. Busch on behalf of the women's caucus that outlines some of its concerns.
"The questions from certain members of the Judiciary Committee appear to be more of a cross-examining, gotcha style' rather than respectful, information gathering questions," according to a copy of the letter that was obtained by The Gazette. "This is not to say that probing questions should not be asked. But the tone and style of some members of the Committee have been called sarcastic, rude and insulting, which is inappropriate."
Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis said earlier Thursday that he was aware of the concerns regarding the treatment of witnesses, particularly victims.
"Those people, in particular, should be treated with every courtesy and respect," he said.
Busch plans to schedule a meeting with the leadership of the women's caucus and the Judiciary Committee to discuss some of the concerns, said his spokeswoman, Alexandra Hughes.
Advocates who spend a lot of time before the General Assembly's law-and-order committees said members need to be particularly considerate of citizens who come before them.
"When you are dealing with issues of individual rights and liberties, you need to promote an air of openness and dialogue and respect to get the best public policy," said Lisae C. Jordan, legislative counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
At least one member of Judiciary agreed that there have been times when the committee has felt more like a courtroom than a legislative body.
"Probing questions are appropriate, but rudeness or sarcasm that can be cutting, I don't think there's a place for that," said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Dist. 15) of Rockville.
One advocate who did not want to be named because bills are pending in the committee prepares witnesses for the tough questioning and warns victims that they open themselves up to intense grilling by committee members if they choose to testify. Some people refuse to appear before the panel, the advocate said.
Veteran lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano recalled that the Judiciary Committee has always had a tough-as-nails reputation, probably because the legal issues it considers have such a profound effect on society.
"When amending criminal law, you've got to look beyond just the bill itself," he said. "You're looking at the body of law for precedence, consistency and harmony. You don't have that in other subject areas."
Still, Kullen and others said if the committee is perceived poorly by the public, it reflects poorly on the entire legislature.
"We want to be seen as nothing less than respectful to the public," the letter to Busch from the women's caucus concludes. "We would appreciate anything that you can do."