Anyone looking for a sign of change in Annapolis this legislative session will only have to watch the House Judiciary Committee. Last year, that body so distinguished itself as an obstacle to important legislation that it inspired an unprecedented revolt by the Women's Caucus after the panel gutted a bill designed to provide stronger legal protections to people battered by domestic violence.
This year, the committee has the same chairman, Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a conservative Prince George's County trial lawyer. But its membership is no longer dominated by lawyers. Only seven of its 22 members are attorneys, 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.
All that should brighten the prospects for further progress on strengthening the state's laws governing domestic violence, a once-hidden problem that increasingly is coming into the open. During the past two sessions, Maryland has made significant strides in this regard. But the state needs further changes in its laws to make Maryland eligible for federal funds designated for domestic violence programs.
These changes fall short of the comprehensive approach that would be most effective in preventing terrorism in the home and protecting citizens who do experience it. That overhaul will have to wait for a thorough review of state laws in light of national recommendations for model domestic violence codes.
Even so, the current proposals are important, and their adoption would mark important progress in this area. They include doing away with fees for people who petition the court for an order of protection; mandatory arrest for domestic violence offenders who violate the terms of a protective order, and provisions that would make it easier for police officers to arrest offenders without a warrant. Other proposals would expand the exemptions from Maryland's spousal immunity law to make it easier for citizens who experience abuse to file charges and require police officers to prepare written reports of domestic violence calls.
Domestic violence is a hot issue this year -- due in part to the O.J. Simpson trial that began yesterday and in part to greater awareness of the toll this kind of violence takes on families and on the larger society. The issue should also get a boost in another way as well. 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.
That helped make the Women's Caucus rebellion effective last year in Annapolis. And it can help the caucus rally widespread support for domestic violence legislation in the current session.