Capital Notebook

Capital Notebook

March 03, 2006

Delegate reaffirms immunity-bill stand

While saying she would never condone any proposal to protect child abusers, a Montgomery County delegate says she stands by her proposal that court-appointed lawyers for children should be immune from most malpractice claims.

Saying that she is "sensitive to the opposition," Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, the bill's lead sponsor, is convening a work group to reconsider the emergency bill that sparked a state battle over whether these lawyers should have broad immunity.

"Under no circumstances would I ever propose anything to `protect child abusers,'" said Dumais, a Democrat and family law attorney. She sent the same message to colleagues in an e-mail this week but made it clear that she believes immunity is critical for court-assigned lawyers to properly represent the child's best interests.

Dumais said she's looking at "adding some buffers" to the proposal aimed at these lawyers known as "guardians ad litem," who represent children in bitter custody fights.

She has asked family law attorneys - and at least one opponent - to work out possible amendments.

The issue has come to the forefront since Maryland's highest court ruled in January that court-assigned lawyers for children do not have immunity, as they had assumed, and can be sued for malpractice.

At two committee hearings last week, legal professionals argued that such lawyers are especially vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits because their findings almost always make one parent unhappy. Children's advocates and some parents whose children have victims of abuse strongly disagree with the proposal.

Several parents have sent e-mails and testified about cases in which court-assigned lawyers sided with abusive spouses or ignored evidence. One is a father whose former wife received custody of his son, even though she was about to marry a convicted child molester. The stepfather is now in prison in Washington County, charged with sexually abusing the man's son, now 9, and a friend.

The Maryland ruling follows a series of court decisions nationwide that have sought to better define the role of guardians ad litem. Some states also are developing new professional standards for them, including Maryland.

JoAnna Daemmrich

House set to debate stem cell bill

The House of Delegates will debate today a proposal to spend $25 million a year on stem cell research, launching what is expected to be a stretch of heated floor fights in both chambers over funding.

The legislation, which would prioritize funding for embryonic stem cell research but would also support adult stem cell research, is expected to pass.

The Senate will consider Tuesday a different bill that would allow state money to be granted for research but wouldn't require annual funding. That bill could face a Republican-backed filibuster.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he told House Speaker Michael E. Busch during a private meeting that he still backs his $20 million budget proposal for research. That plan would allow Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-public group also known as TEDCO, to determine how grants would be allocated.

"This is a priority for the administration," Ehrlich said. "We believe the TEDCO approach is the right approach."

Some lawmakers said yesterday that one element of Ehrlich's proposal - $13.5 million for a research center in Baltimore - might not be included in the budget because the research, not a new facility, is the priority.

Jennifer Skalka

Duncan for city schools petition

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democratic candidate for governor, took a veiled jab at political rival Mayor Martin O'Malley yesterday by urging supporters to sign an online petition expressing support for more funding for Baltimore schools.

In asking for signatures, Duncan referred to the hundreds of city schoolchildren who are staging an education strike this week to demand more state and city support.

Duncan said in an e-mail that education is key to reducing crime and fostering better jobs but that "some leaders in Baltimore and Annapolis don't seem to get it."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the mayor, said Duncan is supporting city schools only because it is an election year.

"In 1997, when it really mattered to the children of Baltimore and not simply to Doug Duncan's campaign for governor, he opposed additional funding to the Baltimore City public school system," Abbruzzese said, referring to a contentious law that turned over some control of city schools to the state in exchange for more aid.

David Nitkin

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