Count on Maryland legislators to make political hay next year out of a proposed victims rights amendment to the state constitution. But give Del. Gerry Brewster bonus points for being among the first and for doing so in such a shameless manner.
The first-term Towson Democrat, who covets the Second District Congressional seat of gubernatorial hopeful Helen Bentley, recently stood in the lobby of Baltimore County's police and fire headquarters and made the non-announcement that he wasn't officially a candidate for Congress. Yet. Nor will he be seeking seeking re-election to the legislature, he added, but he plans to leave Annapolis with a bang, pushing an anti-crime agenda that includes support for the crime victims amendment.
As for anyone who opposes this dubious measure, Mr. Brewster conveniently dumps them all into the category of "the pro-criminal lobby." If the delegate is to be taken literally at his word, he must believe countless judges, attorneys from both sides of the bar, law professors and other respected members of the legal profession who stand against the amendment belong to "the pro-criminal lobby."
We, too, have some strong objections to the amendment. Foremost among them is the fact that more than 30 victims rights laws are already on the books, including the three provisions at the heart of the proposed amendment. There is no apparent need for a constitutional appendage whose purpose would be symbolic rather than functional -- and which judges could sidestep as easily as they might the numerous existing laws.
Amendment advocates themselves insist that judges could continue to allow or disallow the provisions as they see fit and that no victim could take civil action for any violation of the amendment. If that's the case, why bother at all?
In addition, the amendment would have no impact on crime, though backers ballyhoo it as a crime-fighting measure. We're more concerned that excessive advocacy of victims rights could threaten the basic guarantees of the presumption of innocence, due process and a fair, speedy trial.
Even more to the point, the system works. A few jurists and
defense lawyers may abuse the process, but overall our courts are very successful in convicting criminals and giving them lengthy prison terms, legal experts say. A handful of aberrations shouldn't serve as an excuse for altering a justice system that, while imperfect, gets the job done.
Crime victims should be accommodated by the legal system within reason, as the legislature has repeatedly affirmed. And if further adjustments must be made, lawmakers should do so with the rifle-shot precision of a statute instead of the blunderbuss approach of a constitutional amendment. Also, valid complaints about flaws in the judicial process could be lodged with the rules committee of the state Court of Appeals. But a loosely-worded amendment that achieves far more for the agendas of politicians and interest groups than for justice doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.