Md. lawmakers spar over constitutional amendment to end requiring lawyers at bail hearings



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ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Maryland attorneys and lawmakers sparred Friday about a proposed constitutional amendment to nullify a court ruling that requires government-funded lawyers to be present at initial bail review hearings for the poor, but the debate might be all that results from the proposal this year.

Sen. Michael Hough testified Friday that Maryland is basically wasting $10 million a year to provide an attorney at initial bail review hearings before a court commissioner to meet the requirement of an "out-of-control activist" court.

"My argument is we didn't have to do this," said Hough, R-Frederick. "It's not in Maryland's constitution, and this was a new right that they interpreted."

Hough pointed to a state analysis that defendants have waived their right to counsel at 64 percent of the proceedings from July 2014 to December 2014.

Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe said he could not recall a time when Maryland tried to amend the state's constitution to take away a declared right by the state's highest court, and he said the ruling is working by reducing the number of people who are detained when they are presumed innocent.

"The world has not come to an end," DeWolfe told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "The bank of Maryland has not been broken."

Sen. Robert Zirkin, the committee chairman, said he had doubts about whether the constitutional amendment measure, which would put the matter on the ballot in 2016 for voters to decide, would be brought up for a vote this session.

"What we're doing right now is probably the best thing that we can do with this court decision, which is simply comply with it and have lawyers," Zirkin said after the hearing Friday.

The ruling by the state's highest court has irked many lawmakers since 2012, as they've tried to avoid the financial liability in lean budget years. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, has been particularly disturbed by the ruling. He urged members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday to bring a bill to the floor to try to address the matter this session, which is set to end April 13.

Maryland is unusual because initial bail review hearings are often held before a court commissioner, whose decision is later reviewed by a judge. In 2012, the Court of Appeals ruled that poor defendants were entitled to legal representation at the very first bail hearing before court commissioners.

In 2012, lawmakers changed state law to specify that the public defender's office had to represent defendants at a bail hearing before a judge, but not before a court commissioner. However, the state's highest court decided in 2013 in a 4-3 ruling that poor defendants had a constitutional right to legal representation before a court commissioner.

Lawmakers were unable to reach a consensus on how to address the second court ruling last year and put $10 million in the budget to pay lawyers to comply with the ruling.

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