For more than a century, the MSBA has been the voice of lawyers across the state, career stage, and demographic. This representation extends into the public policy arena. The MSBA takes an active role in shaping legislation considered in Annapolis and Washington, D.C., to realize the best possible outcomes for Maryland’s lawyers and legal professionals. We do so by leveraging the networks, skills, and knowledge of our members, such as Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Steven Salant, with Towson attorney Megan McKee, co-chairs the Committee on Laws, the driving force behind the MSBA Legislative Program.
MSBA: What motivated you to pursue a career in the law?
SS: From the age of 12 I wanted to be a lawyer. A friend of mine gave me a book called My Life in Court, by Louis Nizer, which was a compilation of various cases that Mr. Nizer tried in court. I became very interested in it, and I knew that’s where I wanted to go. As I got older, I appreciated the fact that the law would have an impact on society and people.
MSBA: Please tell us about your background in family law prior to your judicial appointment.
SS: After graduating from the Georgetown University Law Center, I went to Chicago, where for three years I was an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois. So, my focus at that time was obviously criminal law.
I came back to Maryland, studied for the Bar, and opened up a law firm with another person. I was doing whatever I could do, basically, to earn a living. The funny thing about it was that I had never taken a family law course in law school. In fact, I don’t think it was even offered at the time. When I was looking for work, I found that many lawyers did not want to do family law, so they would send me those cases. And, lo and behold, I would receive more and more cases and referrals. So although my practice encompassed a lot of things – real estate, personal injury law – over time it became mostly family law and criminal law.
The unique aspect of my law practice was that, [starting] in law school, I developed a fluency in sign language, so I was able to work with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It was great for that community, because now they could go to a lawyer – not just someone they might have been familiar with who did disabilities law, but someone who could do real estate closings, driving-while-intoxicated cases, divorces – for all kinds of what we call bread-and-butter legal services that they would need. That was a really good way for me to grow my practice.
In working with the deaf, I was able to deal with a lot of the barriers that they had and a lot of the specific needs that they had in dealing with the legal system. In fact, I used to give a talk at Towson University on deafness and the legal system; you’re talking about a time where they could not communicate through a phone without a TTY machine. The ADA was just coming into its own, so it really required lawyers to go into institutions and enforce it [by saying], “Wait a minute, you’re supposed to have these devices available to enable these people to participate in the legal system.”
MSBA: How did you become actively involved with the MSBA?
SS: When I became a Master – what’s now called a Family Magistrate – I began to look at more ways that I could become involved. So I served on the Board of Governors in 1998, and again in 2006. Those were just terrific experiences. I also joined the Family & Juvenile Law Section. I got involved with that and, when appropriate, I would participate in programs to educate the bar.
Sue Ann Mahaffey, who was a Family Master along with me in Montgomery County, told me about the Laws COmmittee and what they did. I said, “Hey, that really sounds interesting.” She said how they appreciated someone who had an in-depth knowledge of family law, because a lot of bills that came before them dealt with that issue. I told her I was interested, and so she spoke to the President at that time. I’ve now been on the Committee for 17 years.
MSBA: How does the Laws Committee help to steer the MSBA Legislative Program?
SS: The Committee on Laws is really an extension of the State Bar, because there are values that we promote. We want equal justice. We want due process. We want fairness. We want things that will assist the legal profession in its mission.
The MSBA Legislative Program encompasses many of those values. I think it’s critical, because legislators do look to us for our position. We may agree with them, we may disagree, but it is crucial for the State Bar to make its position known, and hopefully be persuasive in the legislature. Bills that come up obviously affect different interest groups in different ways. For the Bar, it’s very important for the members’ interest to be represented.
MSBA: A bill relevant to the legal profession lands before the Committee. Where does it go from there?
SS: The Committee digests it, and we ultimately vote, and majority rules in terms of presenting our argument to the Board of Governors. Now, if there is a difficult question, that is also relayed to the Board, and we will let them know that this was a highly contentious issue and that they may want to consider further. It’s important to note that we are merely making a recommendation to the Board of Governors as to what their position might be. They can agree with us or disagree with us; that’s totally up to them. But we try to do as thorough a job as possible, explaining why we come down in a certain way.
MSBA: How do you negotiate the demands of the Laws Committee during the Legislative Session with a busy docket?
SS: I have a very flexible administrative judge. The only time that I really have difficulty is if I’m in a trial and I just cannot get out of it. I’m fortunate that Co-Chair Meg McKee and I can divide up the bills.
MSBA: What has your experience on the Laws Committee taught you?
SS: Well, I’ve certainly learned the way the legislature works, and I’ve learned how bills can be passed right away, [while others] can wait for years and years and years. I’ve learned the importance of our Director of Legislative Services, Richard Montgomery. He has great institutional knowledge.
Apart from the legislature itself, I think I’ve just learned to listen a lot better to people who know more than I do. I think that’s an important experience that can be extended outside of the Laws Committee.