Two dodge House shuffle to stay on judiciary panel

Dels. Carter, Smigiel remain after protest

others lament moves

January 17, 2009|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,

After a protest from the Baltimore NAACP, Baltimore Del. Jill P. Carter kept her seat yesterday on the lawmaking panel that oversees judicial issues - but other committee reassignments have Republican leaders vowing that the bipartisan "honeymoon is over" in Annapolis just days after the 90-day legislative session began.

Carter, a Democrat, and Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, have both said that House Speaker Michael E. Busch alerted them this week that they might be moved from the Judiciary Committee, a panel with a reputation for aggressive interrogations by the many members who are defense attorneys by profession.

Busch used his discretion this week to shuffle nine members among the six committees in the House of Delegates. But yesterday, he let Carter and Smigiel, both attorneys, keep their judiciary positions. Carter attributed the decision in part to a rapidly organized protest campaign led by Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"My being [on the committee] is a civil rights issue," said Carter, who is black.

Baltimore public officials, particularly the city's top prosecutor, have complained for years about the Judiciary Committee, saying it is hostile to their crime-fighting plans. Their grievances erupted last year when Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said city officials were "treated pretty rudely" when discussing proposed gun-control legislation. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy agreed, saying, "We got beat up together."

Ultimately, the committee killed the city's entire slate of bills.

Smigiel said that in a morning meeting yesterday Busch suggested that the Republican might keep his committee seat but adopt a style of questioning that was "not so courtroom-oriented." On his way out of the morning session, a grinning Smigiel vowed to henceforth treat public officials testifying in his committee "with loving care."

Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for Busch, denied that the NAACP publicity effort had any effect on Busch's decision to keep the judiciary panel largely intact. Cheatham's campaign had "absolutely no impact," agreed Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat and party whip.

After several days of discussion and negotiations, the only judiciary member moved was Del. Christopher B. Shank, the Republican whip from Washington County who went to the tax-making Ways and Means Committee. Shank said he "graciously" agreed to move, but that he was "very disconcerted" yesterday morning to learn that two other Republicans, Dels. Susan W. Krebs and Joseph C. Boteler III, had been moved from their committees "without consultation of the minority party."

Calling the action a "kick in the pants," Shank said Busch's decisions undermine pledges of cooperation made by Democratic leaders this week. "It seems to me, maybe the honeymoon is over," he said.

After a happy morning, Carter got an unpleasant surprise. She discovered in the afternoon, she said, that she had been stripped of her chairmanship of the estates and trusts subcommittee.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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