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Centralizing Constitutional Cases: Good Policy or Retaliation?

Democratic legislators are pushing a bill to allow any constitutional law challenge brought or filed in a circuit court to be transferred at the request of a defendant to the court in Anne Arundel County, home of Maryland's capitol.

The bill would allow all constitutional cases to be heard in Annapolis, where judges can develop a constitutional expertise, said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who joined Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) to introduce the legislation.

But Republicans allege that the bill is merely political retaliation for a lawsuit filed by GOP legislative leaders against the Democrat-led General Assembly to revoke the $1.4 billion in tax increases passed during the special session this fall.

Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Thomas F. Stansfield dismissed the partisan legal challenge in January, rejecting the Republicans' contention that record-keeping errors made by legislative staff should result in the tax legislation being nullified.

The Raskin-Rosenberg bill seeks to stop so-called forum shopping, in which a litigant files suit in a court that he or she thinks will be sympathetic. Some Democrats say they think Republicans did this when they filed their tax lawsuit in Carroll County.

"It is an effort to halt partisan forum shopping," Raskin said. "This is a modest bill that simply tries to bring complex constitutional cases in the judicial circuit that includes Annapolis."

But Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil), one of the plaintiffs in the GOP lawsuit, said the proposal is "a direct result" of his suit.

"The irony is that we lost our case," Smigiel said. "If we were 'forum shopping,' we certainly didn't do it very well."

Raskin said his bill ensures that judges hearing such cases are constitutional experts.

"The judges in Anne Arundel County who oversee these cases develop a constitutional expertise that judges in other parts of the state don't have," Raskin said.

Referencing Stansfield's opinion, Raskin said, "the decision was replete with errors, and even went so far as to uphold laws by the General Assembly that we never passed."

Smigiel said that Raskin's is a "fallacious argument."

"It's the Democrats trying to expand control of the legislature now into the judiciary," Smigiel said. "I think these are very dangerous signals to send. They put a chilling effect on the independence of the judiciary."

-- Philip Rucker

By Anne Bartlett  |  March 3, 2008; 10:01 AM ET
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