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Maryland Republicans: Looking for relevance in all the wrong places

The Baltimore Sun

A Cecil County Republican says the state constitution has been ignored, hijacked and used for nefarious purposes.

A procedural i wasn't dotted during the General Assembly's recent special session, he says. A t may have been left uncrossed as well.

Without careful adherence to the law, says Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., everything the Assembly did in November is null and void.

The tax bills that were passed - over Republican objections - must be rolled back, he says.

This is a classic procedural tempest in a very small teapot: Because it had finished its work, the state Senate took a break until the House of Delegates finished its work. The Senate stood down, it is charged, without the necessary by-your-leave - an official message from the Senate to the House.

As the case unfolds in and around the courts, there have been whispers of backdating or redating certain crucial matters to hide this heinous misfeasance. Something like rendition apparently was being considered to bring the party of the first part back from vacation to be held accountable.

Until this miscreant - House Clerk Mary Monahan - agreed to be deposed, all remedies were considered, short of waterboarding.

Some people might think it was a good thing to have 47 of the 188 lawmakers out for a long coffee break. Since the Senate is dominated by Democrats, Delegate Smigiel might have been one of them.

But not in this case. He may be truly offended by the errors he believes he has found. He's being scrupulously attentive to Job No. 1: safeguarding the taxpayers, the process and the ideological demands of the GOP playbook. But his case looks very much like a political "gotcha."

The Bush administration and Congress have suspended the hallowed protection against unlawful incarceration known as habeas corpus. In Maryland, we're digging deeper, getting to the root of the mischief: undotted i's upon which the entire governmental structure rests.

The constitutional provision so zealously protected here was apparently designed to prevent one house or the other from derailing a piece of legislation by absconding from the Capitol grounds without leave. If the chambers were controlled by different parties or by maverick leaders or in some other nefarious manner, this law would make it more difficult, if not impossible, to frustrate the people's representatives.

In this case, the purpose of a (relatively) smooth-running Assembly was achieved without any such effort to subvert or derail. The two houses did their work, voted and went home.

It is being said that Mr. Smigiel - and like-minded Republican allies - want to undo in the courts what his outnumbered party could not do on the floors of the House and Senate. Surely he wouldn't mind if that were the result, but he would probably be astonished.

An achievable outcome would be keeping the GOP banner flying over those gallant tax resisters who fight on even when the state faces a $1.7 billion budget gap. If he loses, he can say he was done in by the tax-and-spend Democrats.

Even if the courts rule against the Republicans, their determination to fight after the battle is lost may be regarded in some corners as an act of supreme devotion. Others will see it as the petty response of a party that hasn't won enough seats in the Assembly to make its policies the policies of Maryland.

And all for naught if you set aside the dubious value of publicity.

Attorney Dan Friedman, a student of Maryland government who has written a book about the state constitution, says the courts are unlikely to rule for Mr. Smigiel.

There is, he told The Sun last week, "a strong, strong predilection against granting a procedural windfall to somebody who lost the substance."

In similar circumstances, the GOP has resorted on the national level to shutting down the government. The maneuver before us now in Maryland would do something similar. In this case, we have the party that tends to view regulation as un-American insisting on adherence to rules that would cripple the government.

The constitution must be honored - but not at the expense of common sense.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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