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A dictator in the House? [Commentary]

The recent passage of Maryland's Marijuana Decriminalization Bill was an act of rebellion. Not against society's norms, but against one man: House Judiciary Chairman Joseph Vallario.

The bill easily passed the Senate and had overwhelming support from the Democratic Party. Yet Delegate Vallario, a Prince George's Democrat, essentially killed it by amending the bill to merely set up a task force to study the issue for the next two years. The original bill was resurrected and passed with minor amendments after a rebellion from a coalition ranging from the Black Caucus to conservative Libertarians, outraged at the sheer wastefulness of criminal prosecution for minor marijuana violations. Thanks to media attention, their efforts led to passage by the whole House of Delegates.

Mr. Vallario's dictatorial rule started in 1993 when he became judiciary chairman, and, as a former Maryland Assistant Attorney General in the 1990s, I saw this game play out first hand. My Health Care Fraud Unit pursued a number of individuals who impersonated medical professionals, endangered the public and defrauded both patients and their insurance companies. Dismayed by the ridiculously low penalties for these crimes, the attorney general's office proposed corrective legislation. With the support of a broad array of consumer and patient groups, medical associations, law enforcement and insurance companies, I briefed key legislators on our proposed new felony penalties.

We got swift passage in the Senate. However, when I briefed Delegate Vallario, he asked "why not pursue these crimes as misdemeanors?" I explained that the danger of a medical imposter shouldn't be treated as a petty theft. He acknowledged the point and even agreed to sponsor the bill in the House. Little did I realize, this was actually the legislative kiss of death. To our coalition's disappointment, Delegate Vallario refused to let our bill out of committee. He lamely told us that his committee members wouldn't go along, which made little sense in light of his iron-fisted leadership.

We knew all along that Delegate Vallario was a criminal defense attorney nine months a year, and he was viewed in our office and around the capitol as generally sympathizing with his profession in his votes. He typically opposes increasing a crime to a felony, which would complicate a criminal defense practice. But he may object to decriminalization, which could have the effect of cutting down on defense cases. In fact, his consistent animus to pro-prosecution efforts even earned him the moniker "Let 'em go Joe" among staffers in Annapolis.

The marijuana bill is not the only example of public rebellion against Delegate Vallario. In 2010, the Women Legislators of Maryland wrote an open letter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch complaining about the failure to advance legislation to protect domestic abuse victims through Mr. Vallario's committee and the abuse that was heaped on crime victims and their advocates before his committee. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has also sounded off against Delegate Vallario for blocking DUI legislation.

What then can we take from these battles against Delegate Vallario? One lesson is that a revolt against a legislative dictator can succeed. However, a successful rebellion requires an appealing subject and a motivated coalition willing to make waves. The broader question — how we fix a system that allows a committee chairman to often act as a one-person logjam — remains tougher to solve.

Sidney Rocke was a Maryland assistant attorney general from 1996 to 1998. His email is

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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