Maryland High Court Rejects GOP Lawsuit to Overturn New Taxes

A Republican attempt to overturn taxes approved during last year's special session has failed.

Maryland's highest court has thrown out a GOP lawsuit over technical violations in the procedure the General Assembly followed during a special legislative session last year to address a budget deficit.

During the session, lawmakers raised more than $1.3 billion in new taxes to avoid a shortfall.

But Republicans said Democrats violated an obscure constitutional provision when the Senate took a long break without permission of the House. As a result, the GOP argued, the whole session was invalid.

The Court of Appeals rejected that claim Wednesday without comment. A longer ruling will be issued later.

The decision means Republican challenges to a November referendum on slot machine gambling included in the lawsuit also failed. The Republicans argued the legislature shouldn't have punted on the issue and should have instead made a decision itself on whether to allow slots.

"I actually am very surprised," said Delegate Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican who brought the lawsuit after spotting the technical error.

Smigiel said he is curious to see judges' explanations.

"There are now parts of the constitution you can violate with impunity. So, I guess we can now go through the constitution and decide which parts we can violate," he said.

The judges affirmed a ruling last year by a Carroll County judge that the legislature acted in a "reprehensible" manner when it overlooked constitutional requirements about how they meet. But that judge decided the flub wasn't enough to invalidate a long list of bills passed by both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

"The court can simply not agree that when a technicality in procedure is violated, the entire slate of lawfully enacted legislation should be invalidated," Judge Thomas Stanfield wrote.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Wednesday that a scheduling error should not undo laws that Republicans don't have enough votes to defeat in the legislature.

"We contended all along that it was frivolous lawsuit, that the General Assembly acted in good faith, and they saw that," Miller said about the judges' ruling.

The decision brings to an end months of bickering over the procedural mistake. During last fall's special session, the Senate left Annapolis for more than three days without apparent permission of the House, a little-noticed requirement in the state constitution.

Republicans noticed the error and said it was a violation that made resulting laws invalid. Democrats called it a clerk's innocent mistake. Stanfield agreed with Democrats that the violation wasn't important enough to overturn the taxes — but he chastised Democrats for what he called "an egregious lack of judgment."

Sen. Allan Kittleman, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, said Wednesday he was disappointed the lawsuit failed, but that ruling Democrats are doing a better job this year following parliamentary procedures.

"The leadership is making sure they follow all the rules," Kittleman said. "Laws can't be made if we're breaking them at the same time."

Taxes passed by the legislature last fall included a higher sales tax, tobacco tax and higher income taxes for the wealthy.