Domestic violence bill is revived

March 26, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Score one for the women.

After seeing their domestic violence bill gutted by a House committee, members of the women's legislative caucus took their case to the entire House of Delegates yesterday and won preliminary approval for a modest measure that would give greater protection to victims of domestic abuse.

The caucus, which includes 36 delegates, made the move after the Judiciary Committee last week all but killed the bill, which had been the women's top priority this legislative session. Female legislators like to note that 18 of the Judiciary Committee's 22 members are men.

In a highly unusual move, the caucus essentially appealed the committee's decision to the entire House, forcing members to vote publicly on the issue in an election year.

The strategy appeared to work. Afterward, the caucus had restored nearly half the bill, which could receive final House approval today. The bill and a stronger one passed by the Senate would then go to a conference committee to hash out differences.

"It was a win for women throughout the state," said Del. Betty Workman, an Allegany County Democrat, who chairs the caucus. "I think we need this kind of boost."

Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, said yesterday's action was not a defeat for his committee. "No big deal," he said. Later, though, he criticized committee members for breaking with legislative tradition by not supporting the panel's position on the House floor.

"I'm not a very happy camper," a dour Mr. Vallario told his members.

The bill as amended would permit judges to order women to testify against their husbands in cases where two cases of abuse are filed within one year. It also would require police officers to give women who file domestic violence complaints a paper listing their rights and where they can get help.

And it would require various professionals to report mental abuse of children, not just physical abuse.

Although most other states have similar laws, Judiciary Committee members objected to adding mental injury to the Maryland statute because members said it was unclear.

When citing their difficulties with the Judiciary Committee, women legislators suggest that gender is at least part of the problem. Committee member Robert L. Ehrlich Jr, a Baltimore County Republican, says it would be more instructive to note that about half of the committee members are lawyers.

Delegate Ehrlich, a candidate for U.S. Congress, said the committee sometimes guts bills that sound good politically, but would make bad laws. Such was the case with the domestic violence bill, he said.

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