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One of the goals of the MSBA is to facilitate communications between bar members and the General Assembly, not only while it is in session but also throughout the year. With that aim in mind, on March 31st, the MSBA hosted Coffee and Conversations with Legislators featuring Senator Will Smith. He was joined in conversation with former Senator Bobby Zirkin.

Senator Smith represents Montgomery County in the Maryland State Senate and serves as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. He also serves on the Joint Committee on Administrative Executive and Legislative Review, the Legislative Policy Committee, the COVID-19 Legislative Workgroup, the Rules Committee, and a number of caucuses, and is chair of the Maryland Veterans Caucus.  Senator Smith was born in Silver Spring and attended the Barrie School and then The College of William and Mary for his undergraduate and law degrees. He also has a Master’s Degree in Government from Johns Hopkins. He was a National Intelligence officer with the U.S. Navy Reserves as well.

Senator Smith got involved in politics in law school when he met Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor, State Senator, and current member of Congress. They kept in touch, and Senator Smith became involved in Representative Raskin’s campaigns. While still a State Senator, Mr. Raskin asked Mr. Smith to join his team and they ran together. Mr. Smith was elected as a delegate, and when Mr. Raskin ran for Congress, Mr. Smith was appointed to his spot in the State Senate. 

Senator Smith grew up in the Washington DC suburbs, where everything related to politics on the national level, but he believes the real action takes place at the state level. He explained, though, that at the policymaking level, there are advocacy groups, but very few experts and practitioners that provide real, unbiased advice. He is happy to have a continuing relationship with the MSBA, so he can develop communications between lawmakers and practicing attorneys, which he believes will result in better legislation. He encouraged people to get involved and testify and help legislators working on developing laws.

Senator Smith stated, as with many things, the pandemic fundamentally changed things with the legislative process, as many things have migrated online, and voting and floor sessions are now live-streamed. While the process is now more transparent and it is easier for people to get involved, it is not without complications, as some people now attempt to appeal to their base constituents. This has resulted in a lack of candor to the detriment of tough conversation and reasoned debate, which is especially prominent in the voting sessions. Social media and text messages also make their way into debates, which can cause people to change their arguments midstream. He believes that after the pandemic, it will return to some semblance of what it was before. Senator Smith noted that many things may sound great in concept, but the focus should be on the merits of the law and how things actually work, and he emphasized that this is where practitioners can be beneficial in the policymaking process. 

Senator Zirkin noted there are less than two weeks left in the legislative session, and there are many key issues hanging in the balance, including legislation regarding police accountability.  Senator Smith explained that the Senate moved a packet of nine bills out, dealing with everything from independent investigations, requiring police to wear body cameras, and repealing and replacing the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, which is an administrative process for disciplining officers. The House put forth an omnibus bill that encompassed many of the things that were in the Senate bills, and now they are in the midst of reconciling the two vehicles, which he believes will ultimately result in four or five bills. 

The most high-profile issues deal with the use of force and the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, but Senator Smith believes that the most effective and significant long-range policies that are going to go into effect deal with body cameras and independent investigations. In his opinion, the Bill of Rights has been manipulated in a way that veers too far in the direction of protecting officers, and lacks transparency regarding the process, and diminishes the ability to reprimand officers that have gone awry. He believes there is a role for policing, and it is critical to ensure that diverse and talented people are still involved in law enforcement, but significant reforms need to be made. The House and Senate disagree over whether the attorney general or state prosecutor should handle independent investigations of officer-induced death, disclosure of police personnel records, and the use of force standard. 

Senator Zirkin noted that the police legislation are just some of the hundreds of bills dealt with by the House and Senate during the 90-day session, and many other key issues are pending as well. Parole reform was a big piece of Senator Smith’s agenda going into the session, and a key component was removing the governor from the parole process. Currently, Maryland is one of three states where the governor is involved, which Senator Smith believes politicizes the process. The Juvenile Restoration Act is another bill that Senator Smith champions. The Act provides those sentenced to life imprisonment as juveniles an opportunity for parole, which he believes will result in a more just and equitable justice system. It looks like both bills will pass the House and Senate this year. Another notable piece of pending legislation, the Walter Lomax Act, would expand eligibility for compensation for people that were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated. 

There are also two bills pertaining to the right to counsel. The first seeks to raise the fees for filing eviction cases, to reduce the number of cases that are filed and fall more in line with other states. The money raised then will be distributed to multiple sources, including a right to counsel fund. Of interest to practicing attorneys, there is another bill proposes to change the names of the Maryland appellate courts. Currently, Maryland is one of only two states where the highest court is not the Supreme Court, and the pending bill would change that.  The Court of Special Appeals would also be renamed. 

To young lawyers seeking to get involved in politics Senator Smith offered the following advice: contact your legislators and see if there is an opportunity to contribute your advice and experience. As far as running for office, he cautioned them to be mindful of the 90-day commitment and choose a firm that is forgiving. He explained that people who want to run for office must understand that the commitment extends beyond 90 days as well, as you must meet with constituents all year, and must make concessions in other areas of your life. He believes it is worthwhile, though, because you get to have a real impact and make policy in the state of Maryland. 

People interested in viewing the conversation can access it here.