Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch removed a top ally of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from a committee that will consider medical malpractice reform legislation, a change made yesterday, days before a special session to address the issue.
Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland, reacted angrily to his reassignment from the Judiciary Committee, where he served for 10 years, to the Appropriations Committee.
"I think the speaker is moving me off there so I can't be a strong voice on medical malpractice," O'Donnell said. "I think it's very curious that after 10 years on the House Judiciary Committee, two days before a special session I'm removed from the lead committee on medical malpractice reform and placed on another committee."
The 22-member committee has seven Republicans. The special session is scheduled to start Tuesday.
"I've served on the governor's task force on medical malpractice reform," O'Donnell said. "I'm very well versed on this issue, and I've advocated for tort reform for many years."
O'Donnell is being replaced on the judiciary committee by Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., an Eastern Shore Republican who is a member of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.
Smigiel, a first-term delegate, also was frustrated yesterday, saying he spent two years familiarizing himself with complex issues on the Health and Government Operations Committee. He acknowledged that O'Donnell might be a stronger voice for tort reform proposals from the governor, but he said he has also represented insurance companies and doctors and is familiar with their concerns.
"I see no benefit to the people of Maryland from playing politics with these positions," Smigiel said.
As speaker, Busch has authority over committee assignments. The medical malpractice legislation was not a factor in the moves, he said.
"I believe these reassignments better reflect the talents and knowledge areas of these individual legislators," Busch said in a statement.
Some punishment of O'Donnell had long been expected. The minority whip called for a coup against Busch this year after the governor's slot machine proposal failed, saying he would deliver the 43 members of the GOP caucus to any Democrat who sought to topple the speaker.
In the fall, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller moved Sen. James Brochin, a Towson Democrat who favors tort reform, off of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and replaced him with a trial lawyer. Miller has denied that medical malpractice was the motivation for the move.
Busch announced several other committee changes yesterday, saying the moves were designed to balance the six standing committees within the 141-member chamber.
Among them, Republican Del. William J. Frank of Baltimore County will go from appropriations to health and government operations, and Democratic Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore shifts from economic matters to environmental matters.