Monthly Archives: June 2016

Applying the Law, Not Emotion

By Barry Rascovar

June 27, 2016 – If there is a bright spot in the widespread damage done to Baltimore and Maryland by the Freddie Gray conflagration and its aftermath, it is the sterling performance of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Williams.

While Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby placed politics and placating the city’s riotous crowd above her duties to pursue prosecutions based on rigorously impartial and complete investigations, Williams did the opposite.

Applying Law, Not Emotion

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams

He ruled only on the basis of facts and the law. He didn’t let mob psychology or the passions of protesters seeking a scapegoat deter him from doing his duty as an officer of the court.

He wasn’t swayed by pressure from fellow African-Americans demanding convictions of police officers because someone had to be held responsible for Freddie Gray’s unexplained death in the back of a police paddy wagon.

He didn’t take Mosby’s bait to rush to judgment against the officers on the basis of her prosecutors’ suspect conspiracy theories, novel legal theories and “logical inferences.”

Instead, Williams quietly and sternly administered the law to the nth degree. He gave weight only to solid, verifiable facts, not suspicions.

Sparkling Example

He took seriously the legal precept that the accused can’t be found guilty unless there is so much evidence there is no longer “reasonable doubt.”

All this comes from a lawyer who spent much of his career in the U.S. Justice Department investigating and prosecuting bad cops who gave prisoners “rough rides,” denied defendants their legal rights or harmed minorities in their custody.

Williams has been a sparkling example of how a judge is supposed to act in trials large and small. Like Detective Joe Friday in the old TV series “Dragnet,” Williams wants, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Then he applies the factual presentation of defense and prosecution lawyers against what is written in the Annotated Code of Maryland and in appellate court interpretations of the law.

That’s the way justice is supposed to be meted out in the United States. The highly politicized rulings of the current Supreme Court don’t appeal to Williams. He remains faithful to the law, not emotions or social movements of the moment.

Such bedrock reliance on fact-based and statute-based decisions deserves widespread applause.

Indeed, the next time U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin is asked to recommend a name to the White House for a federal judicial post, Williams should be on Cardin’s short list. And the next time Gov. Larry Hogan is in the market for an appellate judge from Baltimore, Williams should get top consideration.

Faithful to his Oath

There’s a reason Williams was selected to preside over a complex series of hyper-sensitive trials. He runs a strict, no-nonsense courtroom. He’s super-smart. He doesn’t get caught up in Court House politics or appeasing an angry populous. He remains faithful to his oath to apply the law fairly and without partiality.

Williams has more Freddie Gray cases on his docket – unless Mosby drops the cases rather than risk looking inept and foolish for stubbornly pursuing cases that already seem to have more holes than Swiss cheese.

Within legal circles, Mosby’s reputation has taken a mighty hit. Her hurried prosecutions are imploding. She doesn’t appear up to the job. Yet she should have no trouble getting reelected given her star power within the city’s African-American community. She almost certainly will be challenged, though.

Applying the Law, Not Emotion

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby

More serious is her frayed – some argue broken – relationship with the city’s police department. It’s a situation of her own making that could lead to future blow-ups and deep divisions hurting her ability to piece together winnable cases.

How Baltimore’s all-but-certain next mayor, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, handles this delicate and highly explosive situation could determine whether the city’s criminal justice system wages an effective fight against those bent on victimizing and harming Baltimore residents.

That issue has been ignored amid the media and political focus on Freddie Gray.

Maybe it’s time for cooler heads to prevail. City officials certainly could take their cue from the way Judge Williams objectively handles the “hot-potatoes” tossed into his courtroom.

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Hogan’s Trump Baggage

By Barry Rascovar

Hogan has a problem

His name is Donald Trump.

Everywhere that Hogan goes,

The Donald trails behind him.

Poor Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. He’s tried like the dickens to separate himself from controversial Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

He’s said how disgusted he is with national politics – an indirect slam at Trump.

He’s noted he won’t be going to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next month, anyway.

He has said he’s no fan of Trump and that the combustible New York developer ought not be the Republican nominee.

He endorsed and campaigned for a Trump rival, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

He says he’s not part of the presidential discussion and doesn’t want to talk about Trump any more.

When pressed further by reporters, Hogan said he was “speechless.”

But, the questioner continued, would he campaign for Republican Trump in Maryland? That, Hogan said was “a stupid” question.

Hogan’s ‘Not Involved’

In exasperation, Hogan nearly mimicked a statement to reporters made by the late Gov. Marvin Mandel in denying any role in an enrichment scheme by his friends. Hogan’s version: He’s not involved and doesn’t plan to be involved in anything having to do with any aspect of Trumpian presidential politics.

None of these quasi-, semi- or circuitous denials seemed to work. Hogan’s Trump baggage keeps weighing him down.

Reporters still are badgering him. Does he support the new leader of his party? Does he agree with the almost daily conspiracy allegations and undocumented bombshells coming from Trump’s tweets?

He’s tried dodging reporters, cutting off his responses, walking away from the podium or rushing into his waiting vehicle.

He even made the claim, “I have nothing to do with Donald Trump” – as though the man about to become titular head of the GOP is an alien to Maryland’s Republican governor.

Finally, Hogan tried a more direct response: He’s not going to vote for Trump in the November election.

Clinton, Johnson or a Write-in?

Does that mean he intends to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor? Or will it be a write-in presidential name?

Hogan says he’ll make up his mind when he casts his ballot.

Maryland Democrats are gleeful watching the Republican governor twist like a pretzel attempting to half-divorce himself from Trump.

Both Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and U.S. Rep. John Delaney –potential Democratic opponents in 2018 – have tweaked Hogan for his intransigence in separating himself from Trump.

Delaney even paid for a truck to haul a billboard around the State House questioning Hogan’s silence.

Callers to right-wing talk shows indicated a mixed verdict on Hogan’s “I won’t vote for Trump” statement. Some applauded him for taking a principled stand. Others condemned him for what they consider a turncoat action.

Campaigning for Szeliga

Hogan’s position may anger many staunch conservative Republicans in the short run but over the long term the discontented are likely to stick by Hogan when he runs for a second term in two years.

Those who doubt Hogan’s loyalty to the GOP will see the governor campaigning for Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, who is running for U.S. Senate in November. Szeliga has denounced some of Trump’s comments as racist and discriminatory, yet she has not gone as far as Hogan in her separation from the presidential candidate.

Questions will keep coming Hogan’s way, though. He has yet to condemn any of Trump’s beyond-the-pale accusations or indicated whether he agrees or disagrees with what Trump alleges.

Questions also will start coming about Hogan’s position on presidential issues that impact Maryland, such as the need, or lack of a need, for more gun-control legislation in light of the slaughter in Orlando.

The next four-plus months could be quite uncomfortable for Governor Hogan as he continues to try to tiptoe around the presidential conundrum Trump is creating for Republican leaders.

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Crunch Time for P.G. Hospital

By Barry Rascovar

June 13, 2016 – Here we go again: Another liberal-conservative showdown over a new hospital for Prince George’s County. Only this time, the confrontation isn’t between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and the Democratic legislature.

Instead, the tug-of-war is between a conservative political scientist from a Republican think-tank and Democrats in the county who control its hospital system.

Crunch Time P.G. Hospital

Proposed Prince George’s Regional Medical Center

The think-tank guru, Robert Moffit, was placed on the Maryland Health Care Commission by Hogan. It’s his second time around, having been on the panel before under Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

Due to a quirk in the way the commission conducts its business, Moffit has life-or-death powers over the proposed $655 million Prince George’s Regional Medical Center. He’s been assigned to evaluate this project and if he’s unwilling to sign off, the panel won’t issue the essential certificate of need (CON) for construction.

Wring Price Concessions

At the moment, Moffit is playing hardball.

He wants to wring $112 million from the project’s cost by cutting the number of acute care beds and dramatically shrinking room size. Moffit’s modifications call for fewer inpatient beds, fewer operating rooms, fewer emergency room bays and no specialty wing run by the Mt. Washington Pediatric Center.

It would be a stripped-down model designed to break even with far fewer customers coming through the doors.

That’s in keeping with both conservative Republican manta (do more with less) and a trend in health care that stresses outpatient treatment over hospital admissions.

Moffit, who works at the Heritage Foundation, doesn’t want a white elephant – a hospital that is half-empty and unable to pay its bills or avoid red ink.

That’s been the sorry state of county hospitals for decades under Dimensions Healthcare System, which has shortchanged county residents through long-standing management incompetence, political cronyism and an inability to offer quality medical care.

Deal in Annapolis

A running battle in Annapolis finally led to an agreement in which the state and county governments would chip in for a brand-new regional medical center in Largo, replacing the run-down, 75-year-old hospital at Cheverly and consolidating county in-patient beds at one site.

What sealed the deal was agreement by county politicians to relinquish control to the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), which has a record of turning woebegone hospitals into winners for patients and the bottom line.

But Moffit doesn’t seem impressed with what UMMS brings to the table. He’s so focused on the financials that he may be missing key, unspoken elements.

First, Prince George’s County is a health care desert. It is bereft of a comprehensive medical center. No wonder sick residents go elsewhere for in-patient hospital care – to Southern Maryland, to Anne Arundel County, to Montgomery County and to the District of Columbia.

A gleaming, ultra-modern regional medical mecca at Largo, with all the bells and whistles patients and doctors demand, could reverse the out-migration of patients in a hurry.

Indeed, the combination of a cutting-edge, high-tech hospital run by a nationally ranked teaching hospital could result in a stampede of primary care physicians seeking office space nearby. The dearth of primary care docs has been a major shortcoming in the county – a situation UMMS already is working hard to fix.

Different Fruits

Moffit also wrongly compares costs for the P.G. regional medical center to the new community hospital Washington Adventist Hospital is building in Montgomery County. The two have as much in common as apples and oranges.

The Largo project will be far more expensive because the demands for services are far greater in Prince George’s – and infinitely more complex.

The current Dimensions hospital in Cheverly is the second busiest trauma center in Maryland. With violent crime rising in the populous county, you can expect an even greater need for more emergency room bays and high-cost trauma medical care. That’s not factored into Moffit’s equation.

Nor does the commissioner take into account the enormous size of the county with a population that will hit 1 million in the not too distant future. Yet there’s a lack of even one high-caliber hospital.

That’s unacceptable.

Centerpiece of Change

Moffit concedes “a new general hospital campus in Prince George’s County is needed.”

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that this large, fast-growing subdivision with a huge minority population has always been short-changed. For too long, this populous region of Maryland has been denied a first-class regional medical center that can handle diverse and complex cases.

The last thing Prince George’s needs is a shrunken, run-of-the-mill general hospital.

Additionally, Moffit fails to take into consideration that a highly competent and experienced operating team from a premier teaching hospital will be running things.

Moreover, the mission isn’t just cost-efficient management of the new Prince George’s hospital. There’s a larger goal: to transform the county’s entire health care delivery system.

The centerpiece of that transformation is the new regional medical center.

Dumbing down the medical centerpiece denies county residents the kind of top-flight regional inpatient facility they deserve. It sets the stage for a penny wise/pound foolish decision from the Health Care Commission.

It also could lead to an angry response in Annapolis from dismayed Democratic legislators who are unwilling to accept a second-rate compromise.

They could demand sweeping changes in laws governing the Health Care Commission, reconstituting the panel and ensuring that one commissioner no longer gets to rule with near-dictatorial authority on hospital-construction projects.

There’s still time for a sensible resolution. Dimensions and UMMS have until Aug. 31 to respond to Moffit’s unreasonably stiff demands. It would be just as unrealistic to under-build as to over-build at Largo.

This is one decision the Health Care Commission had better get right.

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Grading Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Five vetoes and two major appointments in the past week tell us a great deal about Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. – some good, some not so good.

He’s proving to be a more conservative governor than voters probably imagined when they voted him into office. He’s also proving surprisingly doctrinaire in the extreme language in his statements and messages.

Let’s look at Hogan’s recent decisions and grade him the way his college professors might have:

Transit oversight board  

Hogan’s veto language is hysterical in discussing the Maryland Transit Administration Oversight and Planning Board, HB1010. His veto message is a blatant political document meant to rally the faithful. Hogan said  the bill’s provisions “represent a sophomoric attack on sound transportation policy by creating an unprecedented imposition of a politically-driven board to second-guess the authority of an executive branch agency.”

That’s pure hogwash.

This bill merely sets up a transportation advisory panel, another toothless tiger, like the earlier transportation scoring system he vetoed but the legislature overrode. But at least citizens who ride public transit would have a voice to express their concerns via this advisory group.

Transparency and public input are at the heart of this bill, two elements any sane politician ought to applaud. But by vetoing the bill, Hogan comes down emphatically on the side of secrecy and imperial-style decision-making.

In his message, Hogan made the ridiculous claim that the bill degrades Maryland’s quality of life and harms the state’s competitiveness – total buncombe.

He gets an emphatic F.

Morgan State University housing

This bill bars redevelopment of the Northwood Shopping Center in Baltimore, where student housing is planned for nearby Morgan State University – unless a local community group approves.

This is a local spat that never should have been taken on by the General Assembly. It is dangerous overreach.

Besides, the conflict between town and gown largely has been settled. There’s no need for such a disruptive and intrusive piece of legislation.

Hogan chose the correct path.

He gets an A.

Bridge over the Potomac

The governor had nasty words for this bill, which forces the state to set aside $75 million over the next 10 years to start paying for a replacement for the scary-as-hell 76-year-old Harry W. Nice Bridge that connects the northern neck of Virginia with Southern Maryland.

Grading Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing of the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

Hogan accused the legislature of superseding the “professional judgment” of his transportation staff. Au contraire, governor.

This bill restores the priority status given to replacing the Nice Bridge by the O’Malley administration. Instead of building a modern $1 billion bridge, Hogan’s folks want a far cheaper expansion of the existing, dangerous crossing over the Potomac River.

That’s not good enough. Until Hogan cut tolls on Maryland roads and bridges, the state had designated a replacement for the Nice Bridge as one of its top objectives. Now there’s not enough money to do the job.

There’s nothing wrong in the legislature expressing its will on major transportation projects. The long debate over the original Bay Bridge took place in the General Assembly. Governance in Annapolis is a shared responsibility – something Hogan wants to change.

Give him an F.

Supporting renewable energy

This bill forces utilities to turn more rapidly to renewable energy for electricity. It’s a boon for advocates of solar and wind power.

The current goal is 20 percent renewables by 2022. This bill forces utilities to reach 25% and to do so two years sooner.

That’s a steep challenge, even with subsidies from ratepayers that could cost close to $200 million by 2020. It may be asking for the impossible.

Maryland has made good progress on the road to renewable energy. But there’s a limit to how far this state, given its latitude and harsh winters, can march in that direction. We’re not part of the Sunbelt and state officials have walled off vast stretches of Western Maryland for renewable wind farms.

Besides, utility rates have been rising for Marylanders, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. Hogan is not about to permit what he sees as a backdoor tax increase.

He merits an A for this veto.

Education collaborative

This bill, SB910, runs into all sorts of constitutional conflicts. The goal is noble – a panel tasked with devising ways to help poor students do better in school. But two members of the General Assembly would hold seats on this board, which would hire a director and staff and set far-reaching education policy.

That’s the job of the executive, not the legislative branch, as any student of high school civics knows.

Hogan is right to teach the bill’s supporters a lesson in constitutional government.

His veto gets a grade of A.

New Public Service Commissioner

Del. Tony O’Donnell of Calvert County is the governor’s latest Public Service Commission nominee. In some ways, it’s a curious choice. O’Donnell, a former House minority leader, is a sharp, talkative conservative Republican who seems to have worn out his welcome even in Republican circles in the House of Delegates.

He knows a lot about the inner workings of electric utilities and the science of nuclear energy, having worked as a supervisor for BGE at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

Yet he’s a pro-business Republican who isn’t likely to give much weight to environmental pleas for “green” power. He’s also not a lawyer and hasn’t steeped himself in the arcane statutory meanderings of utility regulatory law.

O’Donnell will bring an interesting outlook to PSC deliberations. But he’s liable to find those endless hearings dull, long-winded and extraordinarily dense.

Hogan could have done better. He gets a B-minus for this appointment.

New Court of Appeals judge

The governor played political favoritism here, nominating his chief lobbyist, Joe Getty, to the state’s highest court.

Yes, Gov. Marvin Mandel did the same thing with Judge John C. Eldridge. But Eldridge brought to the bench considerable experience with a high-powered law firm. He was widely respected as a legal scholar.

Getty, in contrast, is a former legislator and solo practitioner from Carroll County. He could be overwhelmed by the immensity of confronting 200 highly complex legal appeals each year.

Getty, a staunch but sensible conservative, replaces one of the most liberal judges on the appeals court, Lynne Battaglia. He brings a different perspective to deliberations.

But he also could find himself over his head, having never served as a jurist or been under the gun to write dozens of obtuse appellate decisions on technical legal disputes.

Hogan should have named Getty to a lower court so he could gain much-needed experience before throwing him into the judicial lion’s den.

The governor’s grade: C-minus.

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