Debate over vote on immigrant tuition moves to Arundel court

The debate over a state law that would provide college tuition discounts to some illegal immigrants shifted to an Annapolis courtroom Friday.

Attorneys for the law's supporters told an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge that the Maryland Constitution bars a November referendum challenge. The law is about funding state government programs, and appropriations measures are not subject to referendum, they said.

But those backing a petition drive calling for a referendum said the measure does not deal with funding. Instead, it sets a state policy and identifies a group of people who would qualify for in-state tuition discounts.

Both sides have asked Judge Ronald A. Silkworth to rule on the legal issues without holding a trial because only the legal interpretation of the law — not the facts of the case — are in dispute.

"The bill is about the conditions of public expenditures of funds," Joseph E. Sandler, an attorney for the immigrant advocacy organization Casa de Maryland and other supporters of the law, told the judge.

Sandler argued that the measure affects the amount of state aid to community colleges, which is based on the number of in-state students.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Fader, defending the decision by the State Board of Elections to certify the ballot question, disagreed that the community college issue makes the law an appropriation.

Though it may change the number of students who qualify for in-state tuition, it has no impact on the formula used to determine state funding of higher education, he said.

"This lawsuit a frivolous lawsuit," Del. Neil C. Parrott, the Republican from Washington County who led the successful petition drive — much of which involved online petitions — said after leaving the courtroom.

He noted that the arguments were coming not long after the University of Maryland, College Park announced it would cut eight athletic teams. "These are the types of consequence that Marylanders are going to deal with if this bill goes into effect," he said.

CASA representatives declined to comment after the hearing. Sandler said he felt that he and attorney Brett Marston, also representing supporters of the law, fully explained their positions, as did opposing attorneys.

Undocumented immigration has been a hot-button issue, with some Marylanders contending that illegal immigrants draw jobs and government-funded resources away from legal residents, especially in a time of tight budgets and sour economy. But others take a different view.

Last year, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly passed what's known as the Maryland Dream Act, and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it. The law would extend to undocumented immigrants who attended three years of high school in Maryland — and who can show that their parents filed state tax returns — the same in-state tuition discounts that are given to legal residents.

However, the measure has not gone into effect. Elections officials validated more than 108,000 signatures in the petition drive — nearly twice the roughly 55,000 signatures required to bring the issue to the ballot box in November. Signers included 32,397 Democrats, 12,628 independents and 63,487 Republicans.

The suit by Casa de Maryland and other immigrant advocates had originally included a challenge to the way the signatures were gathered, but the groups later dropped that part of the case.

Silkworth said he would rule "fairly quickly."

Elections officials have to certify questions for the general election ballot by Aug. 20.

It is rare for a newly passed Maryland law to be successfully petitioned to referendum. The last such statewide vote was in 1992, when opponents sought to overturn a measure affirming a woman's right to abortion. Voters upheld the law.

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