Advocates respond to Attorney General’s office letter of advice on the General Assembly meeting remotely for a special session

August 17, 2020, Annapolis, MD – A coalition of public advocates maintain that they are very pleased to finally review the advice from the General Assembly’s chief attorney to legislative leaders about the legality and constitutionality of reconvening the legislature for a special session during the coronavirus pandemic or other emergency. The letter, which is found below, clarifies that the legislature can, in fact, reconvene for a special session. The advocates noted that the letter of advice details the circumstances under which the legislature can take the action – exciting news for the over 80 organizations that are in support of a special session.

This letter comes after several weeks of advocates publicly urging the General Assembly to reconvene for a special session to address pressing issues Marylanders are facing including: emergency COVID protections for workers, renters, and homeowners; addressing Governor Hogan’s vetoes including a critical HBCU settlement; and addressing immediate state revenue loss due to recent federal tax policy changes. If the last two issues are not resolved prior to the end of the year, more than $870 million is at stake.

“Releasing this guidance clears the way for legislative leadership to call for a special session that could save the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable Maryland residents and also be safe for legislators and staff,” Larry Stafford, Executive Director at Progressive Maryland said.

For example, the memo outlines that Article 11 of Maryland Constitution states that the legislature should only meet outside of Annapolis, as could be the case for convening in a digital space, “from evident necessity.”

“If an international health pandemic that has resulted in an eviction crisis for hundreds of thousands of Marylanders is not ‘evident necessity’, then I don’t know what is. This supports the idea of meeting remotely or in an alternate location, as other states have done,” Cathryn Paul, Research and Policy Analyst at immigrant advocacy organization CASA said.

Even without “evident necessity,” the Maryland Constitution only specifies that a special session be held in Annapolis, not the State House. This allows for special sessions to be convened in other Annapolis locations such as the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Saint John’s College, Truxton Park, and Weems-Whalen Field and Panther Stadium at the Bates Athletic Complex, among others.

The memo also states that remote voting is possible, with an adjustment to legislative rules and procedures. Legislative rules are routinely approved at the start of each session.

“Since the pandemic began, over 20 legislatures and chambers across the country have quickly changed their procedures to allow for remote voting in floor sessions. Now that this opinion has clarified what the legislature can and can not do – we expect them to act,” Kali Schumitz, Director of Communications and Partner Engagement for the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, said. “Maryland families are counting on their elected leaders to see them through this crisis.”

Finally, the memo outlines how other states have been able to limit risk of legal challenges to remote voting by “changing legislative rules or applicable law to incorporate various procedures such as, but not limited to, having a quorum of members physically present in the chamber even though some members are allowed to vote remotely, requiring that key personnel operate on the chamber floor during the session, or authorizing proxy voting where members present in the Chamber vote for absent members.”

“Waiting until January for a regular session to address the life or death needs of Marylanders is not a sure thing to rely upon,” said Molly Amster, Baltimore Director of Jews United for Justice. “As the New Year may bring another wave of COVID that could coincide with an influenza outbreak and relief is needed now. Before the end of the year, hundreds of thousands of renter households could be evicted. The prudent course of action is to meet this fall.”