Panel Explores Constitutional Legal Challenges Against Counties

MACo 2014 SC Constitution Panel

A panel of attorneys and county elected officials explained how constitutional legal challenges worked and discussed several recent real life constitutional issues faced by Maryland counties at the 2014 MACo Summer Conference.

International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA) Executive Director Chuck Thompson discussed how the United States Supreme Court considers and takes cases.  He stressed the importance of getting supporters to provide support through the submission of amicus briefs and using Supreme Court Counsel rather than local counsel when presenting your case before the court.

Carroll County Commissioner Robin Frazier spoke about a recent challenge against County’s Board of Commissioners over the issue of sectarian legislative prayer.  Noting that proselytizing in legislative prayer is clearly illegal and unconstitutional, she discussed how the Commissioners and counties responded to the plaintiff’s charges and how she personally risked contempt charges by continuing to use sectarian prayer.  While the Carroll County case remains unresolved, a recent Supreme Court holding upholding sectarian legislative prayer has significantly bolstered the county’s position.  Frazier noted during the question and answer section that she had no problem if other faiths besides Christianity were specifically invoked during the legislative prayer.

Local Government Insurance Trust (LGIT) Director of Legal Services John Breads warned about emerging county liability issues related to constitutional rights violations by  sheriff’s departments. He noted that counties can be held liable based on their relationship and connections with the sheriff’s department – for example, including the sheriff’s personnel in the county personnel system or being considered a “joint employer” of deputy sheriffs.  He urged that counties to review their employment and personnel relationships with their sheriff’s department and create further distance where appropriate.

Cecil County Attorney Jason Allison concluded the panel by discussing how the County handled a recent request by a white supremacist group to use the county council’s meeting room for a public meeting.  The request forced the county to review its facility use policy and the applicable law.  The county ultimately decided, based on relevant federal case law, that it had to allow the meeting despite the county’s opposition to the group’s racist message because it allowed other public groups to hold meetings at the location.  However, the county did issue a strongly worded statement disassociating itself from the group and was able to narrowly tailor a legal restriction on the wearing of masks or hoods at the meeting as they did not qualify as “speech” or further the group’s core message.

Maryland Senator Brian Feldman moderated the panel.