From The Baltimore Sun:

Female lawmakers complain about Judiciary chairman

Joseph Vallario, they say, sets a tone of rudeness for the committee

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. has been chairman of the House Judiciary Committee for 17 years. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / March 11, 2010)

Women lawmakers angrily protested Thursday to House Speaker Michael E. Busch about the way a committee that handles sensitive crime legislation treats those who come to Annapolis to testify. In particular, the head of the women's caucus said, Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr.'s "tyrannical leadership" has become intolerable.

"He sets the tone for the committee," said Del. Sue Kullen, a Calvert County Democrat and president of the Women Legislators of Maryland, which includes the General Assembly's 58 female lawmakers. "They do have the authority to kill bills, but they do not have the authority to ravage witnesses who come to testify." She said the "rude behavior reflects poorly on all of us" and sent a letter to Busch asking him to intervene.

Busch called Vallario, a fellow Democrat, "an outstanding chairman" who commands the respect of his committee, though he added that "there's no excuse ever for not treating citizens with respect."

He said he will arrange a meeting with Vallario, Kullen and other female legislators to work through the issues. Vallario said in an interview Thursday that he was eager for a meeting with the women's caucus "to see what I can do to relieve their concerns."

Under Vallario's leadership for 17 years, the Judiciary Committee has repeatedly been criticized by crime victims, police officers and women's advocates as too aggressive and unfriendly toward people who advocate for legislation in often lengthy and emotional hearings.

"It's a tough committee," said Vallario, a 73-year-old trial attorney, "because we have very tough questions. We deal with dynamite issues - sex offenders, gun laws, the death penalty, same-sex marriage, gangs." He said he lets everyone on his committee "speak their voice," though he allowed that "I could be a little more forceful in slowing them down."

More than half of the 24 Judiciary members are also members of the Maryland bar, and the lengthy hearings - the committee is debating 300 bills this year - can sometimes resemble court proceedings. At Thursday's hearing on gun bills, Del. Michael D. Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican and trial attorney, concluded his inquiry of a police official by saying, "No further questions."

At one committee hearing this session, delegates asked a rape victim who was promoting home invasion robbery legislation for more details about what happened to her. At another, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat and practicing attorney, asked a panel - which included the mother of three children drowned by their father - a series of questions designed to showcase his opposition to legislation that would have eased the standard of proof in protective orders.

Kullen said the women's caucus was also upset by the committee's treatment of police officials who want to change the way traffic court cases are docketed by requiring offenders to request a trial rather than automatically assigning a court date.

Phil Hinkle, who as general counsel for the Calvert County Sheriff's Department keeps track of police-related legislation, said he has had numerous run-ins with Vallario. When he testified on the traffic bill, Vallario mocked it as nothing more than a burden on citizens.

"I know who is going to win, and it's not going to be me," Hinkle said later. "I was just trying to be respectful and make my point at the same time."

The women legislators' complaints come at a time when Vallario, a delegate for 35 years, is facing his first serious challenger in years.

Percel O. Alston, a retired 24-year veteran of the Prince George's County Police Department, has filed to run in September's Democratic primary. Alston, who has lived in Upper Marlboro for the past 20 years, comes with the support of police unions - he headed the Prince George's County Fraternal Order of Police for four years. He also has spent a good deal of time negotiating law enforcement labor contracts and writing legislation he has watched die in Vallario's committee.

In the election four years ago, Vallario, who serves in the southern Prince George's County and Calvert County district of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Del. James E. Proctor Jr., finished only about 1,500 votes ahead of Tamara Davis Brown, who spent $29,000 on the race and did not vigorously campaign.

Real campaigning won't get under way until after the legislative session ends, but records show Vallario has more than $126,000 in cash, compared with Alston's $25,000. "It's definitely David against Goliath," Alston said this week.

He said that when he told Vallario he had filed as a challenger, Vallario replied that "running against me is like me running against my daddy."

"It was very disrespectful," Alston said.

Vallario said he wasn't disrespectful to Alston, but "I also wasn't joyful."

"I'm not happy someone wants my job, no," he said. "I think I do a good job."

He called Alston "a Republican in a Democrat's coat." Alston registered as a Democrat in October 2008. His campaign manager said he'd been meaning to switch parties for a while.

"It's not just us in law enforcement that [Vallario] has worked against," Alston said. "But also a lot of victims-rights groups. It seems that a lot of legislation that affects him as a defense attorney is legislation he will oppose."

Over the years, Vallario has opposed efforts to broaden the definition of a "gang member" in a way that would trigger longer prison sentences, install ignition locks in the cars of more drunken drivers and add new gun laws.

In 2005, Vallario struck against an unusual alliance of a Republican governor and black ministers from Baltimore who wanted to allow witnesses intimidated by criminals to testify by written statement instead of in person. A version of the bill did pass - but the city's top prosecutor said it was so diluted she called it a "toothless tiger."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who has made gun crime a priority in a city that is among the most violent in the nation, complained in 2008 that Vallario treated him and other officers "pretty rudely" when they testified before his committee on tightening firearm legislation.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who has served on Judiciary since 2003, said some delegates "have been disrespectful" to citizens and "can get into a cross-examination mode that I don't think is appropriate."

But she defended the chairman as a man committed to his job and to giving everyone - committee members and citizens alike - a chance to speak out.

Although witnesses are supposed to limit their comments to three minutes, Vallario almost always allows them to continue much longer. And he rarely leaves a committee hearing, even though they sometimes stretch for eight or more hours.

"I have nothing but respect for him," Dumais said. "I disagree with him plenty, but he has his opinion, and he rules the committee."

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