Senate passes bill on domestic abuse

April 08, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Women lawmakers rejoiced yesterday as the Maryland Senate gave final approval to a domestic violence bill that would grant victims of abuse greater rights and protection under the law.

The senators passed the bill unanimously, 47-0. It now goes to the desk of one of its prime supporters, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who is expected to sign it into law.

Although the bill is modest -- it would, among other things, require police to give victims information about their rights -- its passage yesterday marked a significant victory for female legislators.

Often divided on issues, the 46-member women's caucus rallied around the bill this year and overpowered a House committee to push it through the legislature.

After the Senate vote, caucus members met outside the chamber to trade hugs and congratulations.

"How about that?" said a grinning Sen. Janice Piccinini, shaking hands with the bill's sponsor, Del. Pauline H. Menes, D-Prince George's.

"They are not yet enlightened on the two floors, but we shall enlighten them," Senator Piccinini, a Baltimore County Democrat, added.

"I am so thrilled," said Susan Mize, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, which backed the measure.

The bill would permit judges to compel women to testify against their husbands when two abuse cases are filed within one year.

Husbands sometimes persuade or threaten their wives not to testify against them.

Under current Maryland law, spouses cannot be compelled to testify against one another.

The measure also would require police officers to tell women who file domestic violence complaints about their legal rights and where they can go for counseling.

A third, particularly controversial provision would require various professionals to report mental abuse of children to social service agencies. Every state has similar laws, but critics have worried that mental abuse is hazily defined and that the bill's passage could lead to specious complaints.

The women's caucus tried to pass several domestic violence measures last year, only to see the House Judiciary Committee kill them.

Caucus members regroup

After the session, caucus members reorganized, drafted a broad domestic violence bill and agreed to make it their top priority of the 1994 General Assembly session.

Two weeks ago, the Judiciary Committee dealt the women another defeat by gutting the bill. Eighteen of the committee's 22 members are men.

Frustrated but united, the women's caucus broke with protocol and appealed the Judiciary Committee's rejection to the entire House of Delegates.

With the help of male legislators, they restored nearly half the bill on the floor of the House.

The highly unusual maneuver embarrassed Judiciary Committee members, who were smarting from suggestions that many of them were insensitive males.

One committee member, Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., recently rejected that label, pointing out that at least half the members are also lawyers.

The Baltimore County Republican argued that while some of the domestic violence measures sound good politically, they would make bad laws.

Women legislators attributed their victory to organization and the broad appeal of the issue in an election year when crime is a top concern.

"This year, we worked together," said Del. Betty Workman, an Allegany County Democrat and leader of the women's caucus.

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