Assembly fights Md.'s top court

In several cases, legislators rush to nullify rulings

`Doesn't look good'

Key issues include cable fees, 11th-hour parliamentary move

March 26, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

There's a war being waged in Annapolis -- between the General Assembly and the Maryland judiciary.

In at least six cases covering subjects ranging from adoptions to late fees charged by cable television subscribers, the legislature is rushing to overturn rulings by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

It is common for the legislature to try to reverse a few court decisions each year, but the number of such bills -- and the determined effort to pass them -- has surprised some observers.

In the most contentious case, the court ruled unconstitutional this month an 11th-hour parliamentary maneuver used occasionally by the legislature, a decision that so infuriated lawmakers that they are proposing a change in the Maryland Constitution to trump the court.

The rash of such legislation comes during a session marked by wrangling between the two branches of government over the judiciary's budget, the pace of court reform in Baltimore and the number of judgeships the state needs.

The feuding has dismayed some.

"I don't know what's going on between the legislature and the courts, but it sure as hell doesn't look good," said M. Albert Figinski, a former Baltimore circuit judge who practices law and lobbies part time in Annapolis.

Judges don't comment on such disputes, but some ranking legislators say the large number of bills directed at appellate decisions is evidence of an overreaching court.

"It's unusual we have so many court decisions that are legislating," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "But it's a very activist court."

Some might say it has also been an activist legislature this year.

One of the first controversies of the annual 90-day session centered on legislation to overturn a July Court of Appeals decision declaring that late-payment fees charged by cable TV companies and other businesses are illegal.

The bill, which has cleared the Senate, would wipe out the ruling and would allow companies to charge late fees of up to 10 percent a month. It would also apply retroactively, allowing cable and telephone companies to forgo repaying millions of dollars in late fees collected from consumers over the past five years.

As the session progressed, court decisions prompted senators and delegates to respond almost immediately with legislation.

One bill would make it harder for a young child to object to an adoption proceeding. A second would allow some wiretap evidence to be introduced in criminal cases, even if it might have been illegally obtained. A third bill, which would have made it easier for police to obtain search warrants, was killed by a House committee.

In mid-March, the Court of Appeals issued two potentially sweeping decisions within five days. Both have prompted hastily drafted legislation.

The first would restore the authority of health maintenance organizations to collect millions of dollars a year from members hurt in accidents who later receive payments from lawsuits filed over their injuries. Until the court ruled, HMOs and lawmakers had assumed the insurers had the right to demand such reimbursements.

Legislative-judicial squabbling reached a peak when the Court of Appeals ruled March 14 that the General Assembly had violated the state constitution by using a roundabout parliamentary move to pass a bill in the last days of the 1998 legislative session.

The court was clearly displeased by the 1998 maneuvering, in which a seemingly dead bill dealing with mutual fund directors was revived and added to a peripherally related measure in the last days of session.

In its ruling, the court appeared to place limits on such moves, a decision that lawmakers took almost as an affront to their independence. They responded quickly, proposing a change in the state constitution to undo the court decision and give the Assembly significant power to set its own rules for manipulating legislation.

The state Constitution requires that a piece of legislation deal with a single subject, and that people may challenge in court bills they contend violate that provision.

The amendment being considered would preclude such court challenges, giving the House of Delegates and Senate the power to decide whether a bill covers more than a single subject.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the amendment would reverse the court decision and allow the legislature to function as it has for decades.

"This rule has been in place since 1851, and it really hasn't been a problem for us," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.

Critics say such a move would give legislative leaders immense power to decide which bills meet the single-subject standard. Bills could be amended substantially in the frantic last days of the session, with only token regard for the single-subject question.

The state bar association and a government watchdog group decried the proposed constitutional change, saying it could lead to State House "mischief" that would subvert the long-standing legislative process.

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