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Inside Annapolis: Interview with Senator Susan C. Lee 

Senator Susan C. Lee (D)

Senate Majority Whip

Senate of Maryland

District 16 (Bethesda – Potomac)

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee

 

MSBA Question 1. Tell us about your upbringing and early influences.

Senator Lee:  I was born in San Antonio, Texas to Harry and Mee Lee, who were both children of immigrants from Southern China.  Both of my grandparents owned mom and pop grocery stores and worked hard and long hours to support their large families.  My father who had 5 siblings was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas and during World War II enlisted in the US Navy at 17 years of age and served on the perilous Atlantic and Pacific.  After the war, he came home to finish high school and then use the GI Bill to go to college and later get a master’s degree in social work.  My mother was the oldest of 9 children and left a war-torn China on a boat at 10 years of age with her 6-year-old sister and met their anxious father in San Francisco after getting through Angel Island.  The war opened my father’s eyes to the world and like others who served and were part of the “Greatest Generation”, wanted to change the world for the better. He had also grown up and was friends with men who later became leaders in voting rights and civil rights, particularly in empowering the Latino community.  In his earlier career, he was a clinical social worker at the US Veterans Administration and also the President of the first integrated union in Dallas, Texas.  Even on his days off, my sisters and I would go with him to visit and provide assistance to widows, veteran families, and others in need.  My mother was an artist with the Dallas Morning News.  As a kid, and with the phone being near my bedroom, I would listen (without his knowledge) to my father’s hours long evening phone calls to his union colleagues and be fascinated by all the strategies they discussed to protect, support, and uplift workers.   I have two sisters, the oldest Patricia who later became a doctor and now with her husband (also a doctor) runs several of their own clinics doing Dermatology and Clinical Trials in Houston and a younger sister Catherine who is a  Smithsonian docent.  When we were kids, we moved to Maryland (Bethesda and then Potomac, Maryland) when my father got a job with the federal government in Washington, DC.  My mother also was an artist with the Washington Post.  My sisters and I are the proud product of the Montgomery County Public Schools.  Despite their busy schedules, my parents were always active in community activities to help the Asian American, immigrant, and other communities.  When we first moved to the Washington, DC area, my father took our family to see a sea of tents (Resurrection City) laid out on the National Mall grounds by leaders and participants in the Poor People’s (Campaign) March.  The March which was led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (shortly after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King).  I was inspired by those leaders, activists, and individuals, mostly African American and people of color, who had  made tremendous sacrifices to journey to Washington to advocate for political, economic, and social justice and the empowerment of some of America’s most vulnerable, impoverished, and disenfranchised.  It was also a time when the many in our country were questioning the status quo and trying to heal divisions.  These collective experiences along with my parents’ emphasis on our duty to give back to our community, to lead by example, to do what we can to make this a better world, and to make a difference- instilled in me that the highest calling is the honor and privilege of serving the community and public service.  America is a work in progress and we all must continue to work together to ensure our country lives up to its highest ideals.

MSBA Question 2.  At what point did you seriously begin to consider the law as a profession, and why?

Senator Lee:  During college, I served as a Summer Congressional Intern for a Democratic Congressman from Texas on Capitol Hill.  This was a life changing experience and I was able to experience first-hand Congress and the American political process in action.  One of my most memorable and cherished memories was meeting Congresswoman Barbara Jordon and Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson at a Texas Congressional luncheon.  After college, I worked for the first Latino Commissioner- (Leonel Castillo) of the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (later-ICE).  Having this and other experiences gave me more focus and an understanding that going to law school would better equip me with the knowledge, skills, and ability to advocate for and serve the community and have a foundation for creating positive change.

MSBA Question 3.  How did your legal studies pave the professional path you chose, in terms of practice and public service?

Senator Lee:  My legal studies provided me with the skills and knowledge of the law which could be applied in a variety of fields, including politics.  While attending law school in San Francisco, I was selected as a Summer Law Clerk for the Asian Law Caucus, which served low income immigrants in San Francisco and Oakland, California and I also served as a President of Asian American Law Students Association at the University of San Francisco School of Law.  During my second year, I served as a Summer Law Clerk with US Department of Justice in Washington, DC- where I was sent to Uvalde, Texas to work on a voting rights case.  I also served as a law clerk for a Judge of the San Francisco Superior Court.  While San Francisco was a beautiful and wonderfully diverse city to live and work (and I am still a member of the California Bar), I truly missed the intense national political environment of the Washington DC Area.  Law school, my legal clerkships, work with community organizations, and life experiences prepared me for my first job as an attorney with the US Civil Rights Commission and later as an attorney with the US Patent and Trademark Office and private practice – representing my clients.  Having a legal background along with my work with community and nonprofit organizations gave me a strong foundation.  When I came to the legislature, these experiences helped me navigate and work on the myriad of issues that came before the House Judiciary Committee and now the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee- as well working with all stakeholders in passing legislation.

MSBA Question 4.

Tell us about your law practice history and how that has influenced you as a lawmaker, first in the House, and now in the Senate.

Senator Lee:  My first Job out of law school was with US Civil Rights Commission in Washington, DC, working on a variety of civil rights issues and hearings.  I also worked as an attorney with the US Patent and Trademark Office, later with private law firms, including Gebhardt & Associates with a concentration in intellectual property, civil rights, and employment law.  Joseph Gebhardt, who was the founder and Managing Partner of Gebhardt & Associates was a respected employment and civil rights lawyer and had earlier ran for Maryland Senate.  He was supportive of my political and community activities and later became my Treasurer and one of my top political advisors. Before being elected to office, I was very active in the community -serving as the Co-chair of the NAACP (Montgomery County Chapter) Multicultural Community Partnership, Member of the Western Montgomery County Advisory Board, President of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of the Washington Area, a Co-founder and Board Member of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (original name – the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Institute) and member of numerous nonprofit and community groups.  While a member of the Progressive Montgomery (later Progressive Maryland), I helped gain the support of top Asian American community leaders to join a coalition of leaders of progressive and labor organizations supporting a living wage bill before the county.  I also was a member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, Co-founder and first Chair of the Coalition of Asian Pacific American Democrats of Maryland and Delegate to the 2000. 2004, 2010, 2012, and 2016 Democratic National Conventions.  Having volunteered for many presidential, Congressional, state, and local candidates, I was familiar with what it took to run and be elected to office.  I took Nancy Kopp’s place in the House of Delegates in 2002 when she became our State Treasurer.  When I entered the House, I was grateful to have mentors such as former Delegate Marilyn Goldwater, Attorney General Brian Frosh (whose seat I was elected to in the Senate when he ran for Attorney General in 2014) and other colleagues.

Having worked as attorney in both the public and private sectors and in leadership positions in numerous community and political organizations gave me a strong foundation as I had first-hand knowledge, experience, and advocacy on the myriad of timely and important issues facing district 16, the county, state and every day citizens.  Instead of being on the outside looking in, I was able to be at the political table, thereby better able to bring together all the stakeholders to pass important laws that could help empower and uplift countless people.  I have brought to the legislature my knowledge and understanding of not only the issues of my District (District-16), but also those impacting the county, state, women, people of color, and those communities that have previously been underrepresented in the halls of power.  Maryland gains when there is diversity of talent and perspectives are included at the table. Instead of being able to help a certain number of clients, as a legislator, I am able to help countless individuals through the passage of good laws.

MSBA Question 5.  For many years now, you have been the General Assembly’s leader on addressing human and labor trafficking, and a key leader on pay equity, LGBTQ rights, and domestic violence prevention through legislation. How did you hone your expertise in those subject areas?

Senator Lee:  I have authored and led passage of numerous laws to help empower women, children, families, hardworking individuals, and some of our state’s most vulnerable.  Serving two terms as President of the Women’s Legislative Caucus (Women Legislators of Maryland), I led efforts to pass an aggressive agenda of laws to fight domestic violence and human trafficking, economically empower women, reduce health care disparities, and obtain funding for rape crisis centers.  I am also the immediate past Chair and Co- founder of the Maryland Legislative Asian American & Pacific Islander Caucus and during my tenure as Chairman, worked closely with Maryland’s Legislative Latino and Black Caucuses on common issues of concern such as immigrant rights, bail reform, economic empowerment, and many other issues.

MSBA Question 6.  You have developed “secondary specialties” in the General Assembly, and 2 of those are Access to Mental Health Services, and Remote Health Care. As it turns out, both those issues are of current significance now that we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you share your thoughts on those issues?

Senator Lee:  When I was in the House of Delegates in 2012, I passed one of the first ever laws dealing with Telemedicine.  The law would allow doctors who used Telemedicine to treat a patient to be reimbursed by insurance carriers.  At the time, Telemedicine (now called Telehealth) was an emerging technology that would allow doctors to be able to diagnosis and treat patients remotely and expediently. At that time- there was a lot of opposition, because of lack of knowledge about and understanding of telehealth’s enormous benefits and cost savings- particularly its potential to expediently save lives especially in emergency situations like stokes or heart attacks when minutes matter.  Telehealth also could provide vital health care services to those in under-served communities, especially to those who are disabled, low income, or have to overcome tremendous obstacles to access transportation.  Since that time, I was able to pass other bills to increase access to telehealth and now I am grateful to my colleagues who have introduced and passed numerous bills that have built on, expanded and made telehealth accessible to many more, particularly in the field of mental health.  Telehealth is now even more important as we are in a “New Normal” in this coronavirus pandemic.  As such, the use of telehealth will likely increase, thereby offering proactive diagnoses, improving outcomes, and saving lives.  I am proud to have helped advance Telehealth in its earlier stages.

MSBA Question 7.  As Senate Majority Whip, tell us how you balance your role in Senate Leadership, with Committee meetings, managing your bill portfolio, and constituent service during a 90-day session.

 Senator Lee:  I am honored and privileged to serve as the Senate Majority Whip.  In this leadership role, I am responsible for assisting Senate President Bill Ferguson and our leadership team in coordinating and gathering the support for important priorities and legislation.  My duty is to bring my colleagues together, get their ideas, input, and support for our legislative agenda and priorities.  I am also proud to be a Member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and work with our outstanding Chairman Senator William Smith, Jr.   The ability to balance my leadership roles,  Committee hearings and meetings, bill portfolios, and constituent services are accomplished in a large part because my office, which is headed by my extraordinary Chief of Staff Michael Lore, has had some of the most best and brightest working together as a team, including my interns.  I also am fortunate to have the best and most engaged constituents in the state.

Every day- I am very honored and privileged to be able to serve and represent the people in my district, Montgomery County and Maryland in the Senate.  When I was working full time at my law firm, I also volunteered and served in on the boards of numerous civic, community and political organizations.  In those roles, I advocated on myriad of issues on behalf of those organizations.  Now, I am sitting at the political table, working collaboratively with coalitions of advocates and stakeholders, achieving consensus, moving forward together, and making a difference.  Being able to see how the laws we passed are benefiting and uplifting countless individuals in Maryland is very gratifying and time well spent.

Other Legislative Highlights

Human Trafficking

When I first came to the legislature, human trafficking was regarded by many of my colleagues as prostitution and not as a serious crime.  Many victims of this crime are children and treated as criminals, instead of victims. This perception often made it impossible for them to escape their downward spiral into further abuse and exploitation.  I believed it was important to provide victims with a means of uplifting themselves out of this form of 21st century human slavery and sexual exploitation.  When I was in the House and then Senate, I was the lead sponsor of laws to not only provide law enforcement and state’s attorneys with the ability to better investigate and prosecute human trafficking, but also assist victims so they could get housing, jobs, education, services, and recover and rebuild their lives.  It took a lot of education of my colleagues and the public to fully understand the egregiousness of human and labor trafficking.  I could not have done this without the outstanding efforts and collaboration of a wonderful coalition of advocates, courageous survivors, and state’s attorneys, law enforcement, other colleagues, and my outstanding staff.  I am especially grateful to and commend the advocates of the many respected organizations and courageous survivors for their relentless dedication, work, and resolve and for never giving up.  Together, we passed laws I introduced -some of which included: making the kidnapping of a child for human trafficking a felony instead of a misdemeanor; banning the defense of mistaking a minor’s age; establishing a Safe Harbor Workgroup for Youth Victims of Human Trafficking (composed of all stakeholders which made recommendations which were passed into laws); allowing victims to assert an affirmative defense of duress in a prostitution charge; requiring police to receive human trafficking training to enable them to detect and assist victims; requiring the National Human Trafficking Hotline Post to be placed in adult entertainment establishment restrooms (to help victims escape their traffickers); updating and revising Maryland’s outdated and confusing human trafficking laws; helping victims receive support and services; and expanding our extortion statute to include the disclosure of an individual’s undocumented immigration status to protect labor and human trafficking victims from being exploited in situations of forced labor or sexual servitude.

Despite the shortened 2020 Session, this year I was able to lead the passage of a hard-fought law “True Freedom Act of 2020,” that would allow victims to vacate minor, nonviolent offenses committed as a result of being trafficked.  This was achieved through collaborative effort and consensus reached by advocates, survivors, state’s attorneys, and law enforcement.  The new law will enable victims and survivors to be able to escape their traffickers, break the cycle of abuse, get services, housing, jobs, education, recover and rebuild their lives.

Labor Trafficking

The legislature also passed my bill, the Anti-Exploitation Act of 2019 which was sponsored in the House by Delegate Wanika Fisher.  This bill created a new, first ever law to define and ban labor trafficking in Maryland.

Pay Equity

I was proud and honored to be the Senate Lead Sponsor of the 2016 Maryland Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, which at the time of its passage was one of the strongest pay equity laws in the nation.  The law bans wage differentials based on sex, gender or other discriminatory policies, promotes greater transparency by allowing employees to inquire or ask about wage information without fear of retaliation or being fired, disallowed employers from asserting defenses based on sex or gender instead of merit, qualifications, experience or other job related factors, and ban “Mommy Tracking”.   It was a great pleasure working with leaders of Women’s Law Center, House of Ruth, NOW, NAACP, Asian American & Pacific Islander, African American, Latino, women’s, LGBTQ, labor, faith, civil rights, and other organizations.  In 2016, women in Maryland made 86 cents for every dollar a man makes, and for women of color there was an even greater disparity.  This gap was not only unequal, but unacceptable.  Earlier, Lillie Ledbetter was victim of pay inequity, as she did not know her male counterparts were making much more for the same work until it was too late as the statute of limitations had run out.  I believe Equal Pay for Equal Work is about fundamental fairness and will close wage gaps and enable all hard-working individuals to support themselves and their families while ensuring a workplace that promotes transparency, merit, and productivity.

This year, I was the Senate Lead Sponsor of the that passed bill to ban employers from requiring wage history from applicants and require employers to provide salary range only on request.  This law will help women, people of color, especially those who were subject to discrimination, and those who worked in the public sector or for nonprofits from having to carry a lower salary level to each and every job.  Merit and qualifications should be the appropriate measures.

LGBTQ and Transgender Rights

In 2015, I was the Senate Lead Sponsor of a law to allow transgender individuals to have their birth certificates reflect the correct gender without a court order, surgery, or placing a marker on the certificate.  When I was in the House of Delegates, I cosponsored a bill with now Speaker Adrienne Jones to include sexual orientation in our hate crimes law.  I also cosponsored laws to ensure marriage equality and protect the rights of transgender individuals.

Domestic Violence

During my tenure in the House and Senate, I have been the Lead Sponsor of numerous laws to fight domestic violence and uplift victims and survivors, who are often trapped in a perpetual and vicious cycle of violence and abuse, and with the system unable to provide adequate assistance or relief.  I believed we needed to overcome a culture of hostility, misunderstanding, and reluctance to address this serious issue, with the victim often being blamed for their predicament.  Working with a wonderful coalition of survivors and leaders of women, children and family, minority, faith, and other advocacy groups as well as law enforcement and state’s attorneys, we have been able to move Maryland forward in passing numerous laws to protect some of our most vulnerable and powerless.

Some of the Domestic Violence bills where I served as Lead Sponsor and were passed and enacted into law:

Updating Maryland’s peace order statute by increasing penalties for repeat violations and the duration of peace orders to meet the specific circumstances of each case.

2014:

Law to make it easier for victims to obtain permanent final protective orders

Law extending the time for protective and peace orders

Law enabling the prosecution of violent crimes committed in front of a child.

2015

Law to allow a judge the flexibility to order “Necessary Relief” in a Final Protective Order

Law to allow a Maryland Victim to petition for a Protective Order for abuse occurring outside of Maryland.

2016

Law to strengthen Maryland’s Stalking law by including conduct that not only leads to death injury or death, but also abusive, relentless, and terrifying behavior that causes foreseeable, intentional, emotional and psychological harm to victim’s health and well-being.

Protecting Victim’s Right to Testify in Court Proceedings– Law to allow convicted perjurers to testify as witnesses in a court  proceeding and to be impeached- to prevent injustices, especially in cases involving domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or other violent crimes where the convicted perjurer is the only witness to the crime.

Law that created the Task Force to Study Recording Deeds for Domestic Violence/Human Trafficking Victims-reps from state agencies, advocacy groups, legal, banking, realty, other industries come together to assist Safe home Address Confidentiality Program develop process to protect confidentiality of addresses of victims.

2017

Law to have Rape or Sexual Assault Defendant tested for HIV within 72 hours of exposure, thereby allowing victim the option of being treated with PEP to reduce infection by 80% if taken within 72 hours.

Law to Take Guns out of the hands of domestic abusers who received probation before judgement for 2nd Degree Assault in a Domestic Related Crime.

“Amber’s Law”- Informs Domestic Victims of the ability to request the latest electronic stay away technology  to alert them and police if the abuser is within a geographic certain area.

2018

Allow law enforcement to Arrest a Domestic Abuser who violates a No Contact Stay Away Pretrial Order, to save lives during the most volatile period for a Domestic Violence victim.

Allow Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Victims to Shield their new addresses when recording Property Deeds to enable them to escape their abusers.

2019

Law to allow law enforcement to arrest Stalkers who violate their Pretrial Condition of Release;

Law to allow for an arrest when an Abuser violates a condition of release.

2020

Law to make Strangulation a First-Degree Felony– instead of 2nd Degree Assault.  Strangulation is a violent crime that often leads to death, brain damage and organ failure and is a leading indicator of Femicide.

Laws which I served as a cosponsor include 2014-Domestic Violence- Cosponsor of laws to change standard for peace and protective orders from “clear and convincing” to “preponderance of evidence.”  In  2018, I cosponsor a  law to terminate the parental rights of rapists and a law to allow a judge to consider, evidence of other sexual assaults accusations to rebut a defense of consent.

Child Abuse, Neglect, and Pornography

Protecting our children from child abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation, and pornography are some of my most important priorities.  It is paramount that we protect our most precious, who are also  our most vulnerable.  If we do not protect our children, they may likely face a lifetime of emotional and physical damage.   I have served as Lead Sponsor and led passage of numerous bills to fight child abuse, neglect, exploitation, and pornography which are included below.

2014 –  Child Abuse/Neglect- Law to allow for better coordination and information sharing between physicians and social service case workers to ensure best treatment and protection of an abused or neglected child.

2016 – Internet Crimes Against Child Task Force (ICAC) Fund:- Alicia’s Law– created $2 Million in funding to allow law enforcement to increase staff, training, and technical and digital forensics capabilities to help them investigate and rescue children from child predators.  This law was inspired by Alicia who at 13 was kidnapped and tortured and raped in the predator’s basement- but later rescued via computer forensics.

2017 – Child Abuse/Neglect- Law to restore protections against some of the horrific child abuses/neglect;

2017 – Law to extend coverage of this law to certain people of authority

2019 – Law also to create Workgroup to Study Child Custody Court Proceedings Involving Child Abuse or Domestic Violence Allegations.

2019 – Law to prosecute a child predator who continually sexually assaults or abuses a child under 14 years old;

2019 –Law to provide Abused Children with Access to services by child advocacy centers statewide;

2019 –Law to have criminal penalties for Failure to Report Child Abuse and Neglect by those required by law to report such.

2019 – Child Pornography- Law to define and effectively prosecute Child Pornography.

2020 – Law to ban and prosecute a Child Predator who knowingly solicits a child’s parent, guardian, or custodian or law enforcement posing as such to commit rape, sexual assault or to prostitute or abduct a child.

Leader in Cybersecurity and Identity Theft Laws

When I entered the legislature, little was known about cybersecurity or identity theft.  I strongly believe we must protect Maryland and our country against dangerous cyber-attacks and identity theft crimes.  Maryland and our nation’s security, public safety and economic prosperity depend on how we meet the myriad of challenges in not only protecting and securing our databases and networks, but also in propelling forward a billion dollar industry that will advance cyber innovation, jobs and allow us to compete globally and sustain our future.

I authored and led passage of numerous laws to fight and prosecute identity theft which is a high profit, low risk crime impacting millions of Americans and costing businesses billions annually.  Left financially and emotionally devastated victims are forced to spend thousands of dollars and years to restore their good name, reputation, credit rating and to avoid being arrested for crimes committed in their names.  When I first got to the legislature, I was able to pass a law to create a Task Force to Study Identity Theft (composed of legislators, industry, consumer, government and other stakeholders) which  produced recommendations that later became laws through bills I introduced and passed.

In 2011, I introduced and passed a bill to create the Maryland Commission on Cybersecurity, Innovation and Excellence, which would be composed of all stakeholders and produce a comprehensive overview of cybersecurity laws and policies and develop recommendations for coordinated, rapid response to cyber-attacks on our government networks and computer systems, develop Road Map for making Maryland the national epicenter and leader in cybersecurity jobs and cutting edge innovations, generate revenues, and support a knowledge base economy.  As several major cities and states have experienced, dangerous attacks can shut down or paralyze government agencies, financial and commercial entities, critical infrastructure, law enforcement, and first-responders.   I introduced and passed a number of laws which were recommendations from this Commission.

In 2015, I introduced and passed a bill to create the Maryland Cybersecurity Council that would be headed by our Attorney General and composed of all the stakeholders from the government agencies, industry, academia, and other groups.  I am the Co-chair of the Cybersecurity Council’s Law, Policy and Legislation Subcommittee.  The Council has built on and continues the important work of the former Commission which completed its duties in 2014.  Again, the Maryland Cybersecurity Council has produced recommendations, some of which were bills I introduced and passed into law.

Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse

I have also introduced and led passage of bills to fight Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse.  The following are some of those laws:

2015 – Law to allow freezing the assets of a defendant who is charged with a financial crime against an elderly or vulnerable adult to prevent the transfer or shielding of stolen assets.

2017 – Law to increase the time for elder abuse investigations from 30 to 60 days to provide adequate time for investigations/prosecutions

2019 – Elder Fraud- Law requiring witnesses to be in the actual presence of a testator and not skyped in or be present via electronic means to prevent fraud in the execution of a will

Awards/Recognition

Maryland Women’s Law Center’s Dorothy Beatty Memorial Award (for my work in passing the 2016 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act); Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence Legislative Award; Maryland Legislative Agenda for Women’s (MLAW) Legislative Leadership Award; Baltimore Child Abuse Center’s Community Hero Award (for work on Alicia’s Law); NARAL Pro Choice Maryland – Choice Advocate Team Award-2018 and RJI Award- 2019; Maryland’s Top 100 Women; Progressive Maryland’s Progressive Leader Award; Maryland National Organization for Women (for leadership and work on legislation while President of the Women’s Caucus- to authorize the placement of Marylander and American hero Harriet Tubman’s statue in the U.S. Capitol); Equality Maryland’s Out for Justice Award; Human Rights Hall of Fame of Montgomery County Inductee; Montgomery County Women’s History Archives; Community Services Awards from the Organization of Chinese Americans, Korean Community Service Center, and Korean American Senior Citizens Association of Maryland; and honored by the Maryland Chapter of the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (for work in advancing healthcare technology and reform).