Guest Contribution from CLN Member and Public Defender Jeff Ross
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD) is the largest legal services provider in the state and is charged by statute with representing indigent clients in a wide array of proceedings, including criminal trials, juvenile proceedings, appeals, post-conviction proceedings, and proceedings affecting parental rights. The Maryland OPD has approximately 650 employees, including assistant public defenders, social workers, paralegals, investigators, and clerical staff. Unlike approximately 30,000 other Maryland state employees, Maryland OPD employees do not have collective bargaining rights.
Employees in public defender agencies across 18 states have collective bargaining rights. In 2020, the Maryland Defender’s Union (MDU) was chartered as AFSCME Local 423, an affiliate of AFSCME Council 3. With passage of collective bargaining for Maryland OPD employees, the MDU will be certified with the state as the bargaining agent for Maryland OPD employees.
The Maryland General Assembly has begun holding hearings in the current legislative session on House Bill 90 (cross-filed with Senate Bill 255), which would secure access to grievance procedures and collective bargaining rights for Maryland OPD employees. A similar bill introduced last year passed the House of Delegates with unanimous Democratic support but fell short in the Senate Finance Committee. However, MDU is encouraged by the prospects of HB90 and SB255 this session, as both bills have secured stronger and broader support than last year. On January 18, HB90 was unopposed during testimony before the House Appropriations Committee. Members of the Catholic Labor Network in Maryland, joining other organizations such as CASA de Maryland, Jews United for Justice, and the NAACP Maryland State Conference, can show their support for the bill by sending a letter to the Appropriations Committee. SB255 will be heard by the Senate Finance Committee on February 10.
The employees of the Maryland OPD serve the poor of Maryland by working to ensure that every client is treated fairly under the law and in accord with their human dignity. The work is draining, even overwhelming, with caseloads often reaching unmanageable levels. With guaranteed access to grievance procedures and the right to collectively bargain, employees of the Maryland OPD would be in a much stronger position to ensure that their indigent clients receive outstanding representation and that they themselves are treated fairly in the process. From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, with its embrace of a preferential option for the poor and an insistence on the right of employees to join unions and to engage in collective bargaining, passage of HB90/SB255 would be a double-win.