Thursday, March 10, 2011

AG Doug Gansler's Actions on Civil Rights

As my second term as Attorney General gets underway, I would like to take a moment to let you know about some of the work our Office is doing to serve the people of Maryland and protect the State’s resources.

In this term, we renew our focus on our top four priorities: protecting the environment, strengthening public safety, defending consumers, and advancing civil rights. Today I would like to share a few updates on our efforts to advance civil rights in Maryland.

To begin, we created the first-ever Director of Civil Rights position within the Office, devoted entirely to addressing infringements on people’s rights and liberty. While much of our time is spent tackling individual claims, we also set up a Task Force on Voting Irregularities to study and solve voter suppression problems in Maryland; and I am happy to report that the long lines, some hundreds of people deep waiting for hours, at polling locations such as Evangel Cathedral in Prince George’s County in 2006, were nowhere to be found in 2010. We also created a Working Group on Lending Practices to reform sub-prime and predatory lending practices; and we vigorously pursued those who preyed on the victims of the mortgage crisis with phony mortgage relief programs such as the $70 million ponzi scheme of Metropolitan Dream Homes.

Additionally, our Office issued two groundbreaking reports and one legal opinion that received national attention. The first report offered Maryland’s institutions of higher learning guidance on how to bridge the minority achievement gap through legally permissible practices aimed at minority recruitment, retention, financial aid, programming, and faculty diversity that increase minority enrollment and graduation rates. Our Task Force on Electronic Weapons then issued a report that provided guidance on training and protocols that will be used nationally by law enforcement personnel to improve the safe and effective use of tasers. And, finally, our 46-page opinion outlining the State’s legal obligation to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions appears to have brought us one step closer to providing to all citizens of Maryland what the Supreme Court has called one of our most basic civil rights, the right to marry.

As we move forward with the second term, our Office is seeking to tackle a new set of civil rights issues. Chief among these is the issue of diversity on the judicial bench. Maryland has the fourth highest percentage of African Americans and the sixth highest percentage of minorities overall of any state in the United States, yet no minority has ever been elected to the trial court anywhere in Southern Maryland, Western Maryland or the Eastern Shore. This dearth of minorities on the circuit court bench appears to be attributable in large part to contested elections.

Our Office has been at the forefront of the fight to convert circuit court elections into retention elections. Used for our state appeals court elections for over 30 years, retention elections allow voters to hold appointed judges accountable via election – ensuring and enhancingvoter enfranchisement – while eliminating heated contests that expose judges to racial bias and subject them to the influence of millions of dollars in campaign contributions and partisan politics.

The influence of money in elections strikes at the core of another major civil rights issue: the need for fair, open, and accountable elections. Elections are fairest when their outcomes reflect the full spectrum of voices of the electorate, but money can skew the results to reflect only a handful of powerful interests. In Maryland, loopholes and other weaknesses facilitate the undue influence of money in the State’s campaign finance laws, many of which can be fixed by regulations or legislation.

To identify these points of weakness and construct thoughtful regulatory and legislative solutions, our Office convened a bipartisan Advisory Committee on Campaign Finance. The Advisory Committee studied our State’s campaign finance system and made 25 specific recommendations for improving transparency and accountability. The Committee’s work sparked broad discussion in the State legislature about the need for campaign finance reform, and several bills were introduced during the current legislative session that are modeled on its recommendations.

These are some examples of the work our Office is doing to advance civil rights. We will use the next four years to ensure that your rights are protected, speaking out in favor of expanded civil rights whenever we have the opportunity.

Thank you for supporting the efforts of our Office as we continue to fight for justice on behalf of the people of Maryland. Your confidence in our team inspires us to work hard on the issues that matter.


Douglas F. Gansler