Court hears special session suit

The Baltimore Sun

Judges on Maryland's highest court expressed skepticism yesterday about Republican lawmakers' insistence that the slot machine gambling referendum and tax increases approved in November's special legislative session should be overturned because of alleged procedural problems.

But in oral arguments before the Court of Appeals over a GOP lawsuit seeking to invalidate the results of the session, justices had tough questions for both sides about the propriety of the proposed constitutional amendment on slots.

A Carroll County judge ruled against the Republican lawmakers this year, although he excoriated Democratic leaders of the General Assembly for what he considered sloppy legislative procedure.

Republicans insisted in their appeal that a five-day adjournment by the Senate during the session warranted overturning of all the new laws. The state constitution stipulates that such an adjournment by one chamber can only be made with consent of the other.

"So what?" Chief Judge Robert M. Bell asked the Republicans' attorney, Irwin Kramer. "Is the remedy to void legislation?"

"Yes," Kramer responded, arguing that would send the right message to lawmakers about sanctity of the Maryland Constitution and the dangers of hasty proceedings.

On the question of the slots referendum, several judges expressed reservations about Kramer's argument that the General Assembly had employed a "double-billing strategy" intended to mislead voters about the true effect of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize video lottery gambling in Maryland.

During the session, the legislature voted to put the question to a referendum in the November election, indicating that the "primary" purpose of the five slots parlors would be to fund education.

But lawmakers also passed a companion bill allocating some of the slots money to the horse-racing industry and other interests.

Kramer urged the Court of Appeals to invalidate the constitutional amendment bill, saying voters will likely be misled into thinking they are voting solely for an education-related program.

"How do you know how it will be explained to voters?" Judge Lynne A. Battaglia asked Kramer.

But some of the judges also questioned the necessity of putting the issue of slots to a constitutional amendment.

"Is the republic going to crumble if this is not in the constitution?" Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. asked Austin C. Schlick, head of the civil litigation division in the attorney general's office.

Schlick responded that a constitutional amendment was necessary because it was the only way lawmakers could assure voters that the slots parlors, if approved, would be limited to five locations.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican and one of the plaintiffs, acknowledged that asking judges to invalidate laws based on an alleged technical violation was a "hard question," but not, he said, a trifling one.

"I don't consider any part of our constitution to be a small procedural thing," he said.

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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