- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

The scene is set for Gov. Parris N. Glendening to veto for the second consecutive year a bill passed unanimously again by the Maryland General Assembly that would raise the limit on judgments in small claims court from $2,500 to $5,000.
The bill "will be a topic in veto meetings," said the governor's spokesman, Michael Morrill, as the General Assembly heads into its last meeting of the session today.
The governor has 60 days to veto or sign bills into law after the Senate and House of Delegates end their annual session.
Last year, there was "not compelling evidence necessary to alter the current law," Mr. Glendening said of his veto. "This concern prompted the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association to request a veto of this bill."
This year could be different.
"We haven't addressed that issue yet this year," association President Bruce Plaxen said when asked if another letter would be sent to the governor.
Mr. Plaxen said the association is minimally interested in the bill. It signed in opposition to it but did not present witnesses against it during hearings in the House of Delegates and Senate.
The association took heat for its opposition last year when records showed it donated the maximum of $12,000 to the Democratic governor's re-election campaign in 1998 and spent $100,000 on radio ads against his opponent, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Perhaps another consideration will be that Mr. Glendening will be leaving the governor's office in January upon conclusion of his second term.
If the 2002 version of the bill becomes law, it will allow small businesses and consumers to file lawsuits demanding up to $5,000 in District Courts, presided over only by judges. Such lawsuits rarely require attorneys for plaintiffs or defendants.
"Glendening has the opportunity to atone for last year's veto by ignoring his sugar daddies at the trial bar and signing House Bill 70 into law," said Tom Gordon, associate counsel for Americans for Legal Reform.
A survey by the group shows that Maryland's $2,500 limit on claims, set in 1987, is the eighth lowest in the nation. Tennessee ranks highest with $15,000. Virginia ranks lowest with $1,000, according to the survey. The limit in the District is $5,000.
Many Maryland judges reportedly opposed raising the limit because, they said, it would clog the courts by allowing people unacquainted with court procedures to handle their own cases.
That theory was discounted by witnesses at a House hearing.
James Davis of Barrons Gaithersburg Lumber said he had spent more on lawyers, who charged $300 to $400 an hour, than he got back in court judgments for an upaid bill.
The lumber company would have to sell 45 tractor-trailer loads of 2-by-4s to get $4,000 profit, enough for a lawyer, Mr. Davis said. A conniving customer might pay only a part of his bill, knowing the company likely would not hire a lawyer to collect the balance because it would cost more than the claim, he said.
"I can go as an officer by myself into small claims court and make my case," Mr. Davis said.
Although the trial lawyers are not strongly opposed, said Mr. Plaxen, "The Maryland Tax Lawyers Association is opposed to House Bill 70 because it limits discovery [pretrial procedures, such as the taking of depositions]. Under certain circumstances, discovery is necessary for proving a case."
Delegate Robert C. Baldwin, Anne Arundel County Republican and co-sponsor of the bill both this year and last, said raising the limits will benefit consumer advocates and small businesses alike.
"It's like a farewell gift. Very good," said Mr. Baldwin, 68, who is retiring after eight years in the House.

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