Domestic violence is a hot issue this year -- due in part to the O.J. Simpson trial and in part to greater awareness of the toll this kind of violence takes on families and on the larger society. So the outlook should be good in Annapolis for legislation to make Maryland eligible for federal funds designated for domestic violence programs.
The changes proposed for this session fall short of the comprehensive review the state eventually needs to undertake, but they are important nonetheless. One provision would do away with fees for people who petition the court for an order of protection. Another would make arrest mandatory for domestic violence offenders who violate the terms of a protective order. The legislation would also give police officers more flexibility in responding to domestic violence calls by making it easier -- but not mandatory -- to arrest offenders without a warrant. Other proposals would require police officers to prepare written reports of domestic violence calls and expand the exemptions from Maryland's spousal immunity law to make it easier for citizens who experience abuse to file charges.
Meanwhile, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has agreed to form a task force to review Maryland's laws covering domestic violence. The goal would be to compare current law with national proposals for model state legislation. That kind of review is essential for providing the context and helping to build support for more comprehensive legislation in future years.
Unlike some other issues often identified with women's causes -- abortion is a prime example -- domestic violence does not tend to drive ideological wedges between Democratic and Republican legislators. Last session, for example, when the House Judiciary Committee gutted domestic violence legislation, the women's caucus staged a rare rebellion and succeeded in restoring some provisions of the bill. In contrast, hot-button issues like abortion split the women's caucus too deeply for women legislators to act in concert.
The turnover in the legislature should help brighten the picture as well. The House Judiciary Committee will be one place to watch for changes. The committee has the same chairman, Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County trial lawyer. But only seven of its 22 members are lawyers, down from 13 last year. It also has a new vice chairman, Ann Marie Doory of Baltimore, who may help moderate a panel regarded in many quarters as excessively unfriendly to progressive legislation.