ANNAPOLIS – Maryland District Courts essentially would be open to victims of domestic violence day and night every day under two bills unanimously approved by the Senate Thursday.
The issue now goes to the House, where that chamber’s own version of the legislation is still in the Judiciary Committee.
The complementary bills would allow domestic abuse sufferers to obtain restraining orders any time they are needed by empowering District Court commissioners to issue interim orders when the regular court is closed.
An interim order is effective until a judge holds a hearing on the first or second day court is open.
The first bill amends the Maryland Constitution, expanding the commissioners’ powers and duties on days and during hours the court is closed.
Voters would have to approve the constitutional change this fall.
The second bill implements the constitutional amendment, allowing commissioners to issue the orders.
Thirty-five percent of domestic abuse occurs on weekends, and 44 percent occurs between 7 p.m. and 4 a.m., according to the 1998 Maryland Uniform Crime Report.
District Court commissioners are the perfect solution to fill this time frame, said Judge Martha F. Rasin of the 7th District Court of Maryland, who coordinated testimony for the bills at the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the House Judiciary Committee hearings last week.
Commissioners are on duty 24 hours every day to issue arrest warrants, criminal summonses and pretrial release conditions for criminal offenses. Their duties are mandated in the constitution so any changes must be placed on the ballot.
They are “a capable workforce already sitting in the chair at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Rasin said.
Commissioners handle almost identical decisions on the criminal side, she said, and they have domestic violence training.
Currently domestic violence victims may only get civil protective orders or peace orders when courts are open. Their only recourse on evenings, weekends or holidays is to file criminal charges.
If the bills become law, victims who don’t want to file charges will have a civil protection option for off-hours.
The measures have received a lot of support, Rasin said.
Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, in his State of the Judiciary address to the General Assembly, presented the bills as part of his legislative agenda.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, made them part of his legislative package, the Women’s Caucus supported them and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Attorney General Joseph Curran testified for them at the hearings, Rasin said.
The Senate committee supported the bills with little discussion during the hearing.
The House committee, however, raised several concerns, which Rasin responded to in a letter.
Delegate Dana Lee Dembrow, D-Montgomery, noted the bill does not address an interim order’s duration. Rasin called for an amendment saying “a judge may postpone the temporary protective hearing for no more than two days, and that an interim order may be extended until the new date, but no longer.”
Delegates Carmen Amedori, R-Carroll, and Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert, were concerned the bill could lead to commissioners ordering the surrender of firearms.
According to Rasin’s letter, the bill makes no provision for that. Only “a specific affirmative act of the General Assembly” could confer that authority.
Last year, the Senate unanimously approved similar bills, she said, but they never made it out of the House committee.
Rasin said the House committee said it wasn’t appropriate to approve a constitutional change during an off-election year.