Too much protection for legislators Civil immunity: Bills would let lawmakers, aides say or do anything they want.

March 31, 1997

SHOULD state legislators and their aides be given unlimited power to say or do anything they wish on behalf of a constituent? Should lawmakers libel, slander, defame or interfere with business contracts without fear of civil lawsuits? Apparently, members of the Maryland General Assembly think that is a worthy idea. They are pushing through two bills that would greatly expand their immunity rights -- to the potential detriment of other citizens and businesses.

Under current law, legislators have blanket immunity for anything they say in the house chambers or in committee meetings. These two bills, though, would give mischievous lawmakers carte blanche to act as verbal wrecking crews outside the State House on behalf of their constituents. Less honorable senators and delegates could use this immunity to smear opponents or companies. They could engage in vendettas and unsavory verbal campaigns to help friends and punish enemies.

One of the bills even extends immunity to a legislator's staff members. That is especially dangerous, since most of these legislative aides are part-time workers or young interns with little real-life experience. Yet they, too, would be exempt from civil suits for their actions.

Elected officials should not be placed above the law when they engage in potentially damaging or wrongful action. They must be held accountable. Moreover, the undefined "constituent services" loophole could be used to hide all sorts of unsavory activity or statements.

There is no compelling reason to vastly increase the power of state delegates and senators so they can act with impunity when handling constituent complaints. We fear that less scrupulous members would abuse this power regularly. That is unacceptable. Both bills ought to be sidelined for now and given much closer scrutiny over the summer months.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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