By: Josh Kurtz 

Who should be offered more support from government, victims of domestic abuse – or pit bulls?

Most people would almost certainly agree that victims of domestic abuse need more help than a controversial dog breed. But if you examine the record of Montgomery County Del. Luiz Simmons (D), who recently announced a bid for state Senate, you might have a hard time figuring out where he stands.

Simmons is one of the smartest people in Annapolis. He knows the law as well as anyone. He can be tactically brilliant, thanks to four decades of courtroom experience. On paper, he seems like just the kind of independent thinker who would thrive making the transition from the constraints of the House of Delegates to the more freewheeling Senate.

But Simmons is also one of the most controversial figures in Annapolis. His candidacy, based in large measure on a pledge to make the state safer, may raise all kinds of red flags for women’s groups and organizations that work with victims of domestic violence, for gun control advocates, for people concerned about clean government – and for his would-be colleagues in the Senate. Questions can be raised about Simmons’ legislative record, about the fact that he seems to be using government property for political purposes, and about whether Simmons is temperamentally suited to work in a collegial environment.

(Disclosure: About a decade ago I served on a grant-making board for a foundation run by ex-Del. Cheryl Kagan, who is now running for the same Senate seat as Simmons. I began researching this article in late summer, before I knew Kagan would be a candidate.)

Simmons fashions himself a truth teller, someone unafraid to take on the powers that be in the State House. He cites his opposition to expanded gambling and to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) redistricting plans for Congress and the legislature. He notes that he supported John Delaney for Congress last year in the 6th district Democratic primary when the party anointed Rob Garagiola (now-Congressman Delaney is supporting Simmons’ bid for Senate).

Simmons is also unafraid to poke colleagues in the eye. Many of them, he said during a 90-minute phone conversation this week, “are in Annapolis to [slurp] down oysters and do what a troika of leaders” – that would be O’Malley, House Speaker Mike Busch (D) and Senate President Mike Miller (D) – “tell them to do.”

On the House Judiciary Committee, which for two decades has been led by Prince George’s Del. Joe Vallario (D), a cantankerous, 76-year-old trial lawyer, Simmons has assumed the role once played by another Montgomery County lawyer, former Del. Dana Dembrow (D).

Simmons, like Dembrow, says he wants to create a more just legal system, to help victims of crime, and to make it easier for law enforcement officials to do their job. Simmons says he, in contrast to many of his colleagues, who deal only with the theoretical, understands the harsh realities of the court system and the damage it can do to people’s lives.

“There is another world out there,” he said, later describing his legal experience this way: “I don’t have a Silk Stocking practice. My office is in the [less prosperous] east part of the county. I mostly represent single mothers, Hispanics, African-Americans.”

But Simmons, like Dembrow, is seen by women’s groups and some safety advocates as an impediment to progress, nitpicking bills to death – at Vallario’s urging, they imagine – often employing very sharp elbows in the process.

Especially noteworthy is Simmons’ resistance to legislation making it easier for victims of domestic violence to get orders of protection against the people who have threatened them. Maryland is the only state in the union that requires “clear and convincing” evidence for judges to issue an order of protection, rather than a “preponderance of evidence” or some other lower standard.

Simmons has been part of a group of House Judiciary Committee members who have opposed legislation lowering the standard for orders of protection for several years running, even after it passed in the state Senate.

At a 2010 hearing on the measure, Amy Castillo, a Montgomery County pediatrician whose three small children were drowned in 2008 by her ex-husband, a man who had a history of mental illness and had threatened Castillo and her children’s lives, told the panel how she had gone to a judge seeking a protection order, but the judge felt he could not grant it under the law. Simmons, while conceding that the Castillo case was “horrific,” spent 20 minutes sharply questioning Castillo and groups that work with domestic violence victims.

“Let me help you, let me help,” he said at one point sarcastically, sounding every bit like the trial lawyer he is. He quoted from the judge’s ruling in the case, in which the judge questioned “the credibility” of both Castillo and her ex-husband. He said the advocates’ interpretation of Castillo’s case represents “a gross injustice to what the facts may be,” and fretted that “this constant clamor [for a change in the law]…implies that Maryland somehow is being less fair” than other states. Simmons also said that their testimony “does a great disservice to [the judge] and the truth.”

In the interview this week, Simmons said he has seen “no empirical evidence” that the higher legal standard has led to more domestic abuse or violence generally – and said a lower standard for an order of protection would not have deterred Castillo’s ex-husband from murdering their children. He notes that the bill has not been introduced since 2010, and accuses his critics of “demagoguing” the issue.

“There are extreme groups – on the uber-left and the uber-right – that are contemptuous of due process,” he said.

Simmons touts his overall record on domestic violence legislation. He has passed a bill that enables cops to pull up orders of protection by computer when they are responding to domestic violence calls. He has also passed a law making it easier for police to break up domestic sex trafficking operations. And he has passed a law preventing people convicted of domestic violence from possessing firearms.

“When I look back over all the things I’ve done, specifically, substantively, to protect women and men, I don’t think there’s another person in the General Assembly whose record is better than mine,” he said.

Yet Simmons continues to confound the advocates.

This year, he co-sponsored legislation, which has passed the Senate at least twice, to allow rape victims who have had children as a result of the sexual assault to deny the fathers of those children parental rights. But during a hearing on the legislation, Simmons identified what he saw as the bill’s many flaws, and it never made it out of the Judiciary Committee.

“I’m only concerned about procedure and process,” he said at the time.

In the interview this week, Simmons invoked the Scottsboro Boys trial, the Central Park jogger case, and the time members of the Duke University lacrosse team were falsely accused of rape to highlight his reservations about the legislation.

“Many bills sound good and appeal to a visceral feeling that we all have,” he said. “But there’s a big difference between a bill as written and a bill as ought to be written…I was the co-sponsor of the bill, but being the co-sponsor of the bill doesn’t mean I subscribe to everything that’s in it.”

The irony is that while Simmons has been opposing lowering the standard for orders of protection, he has been fighting to lower the standard for owners of pit bulls to make their case in legal proceedings.

Maryland courts have ruled that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous,” meaning there is heightened liability for owners of the dog in case of a violent incident, including the threat of eviction. This means that pit bull owners must adhere to a higher standard in legal proceedings than owners of other dog breeds.

Simmons is among the lawmakers who were attempting to lessen that standard. Under his bill, an owner would still be presumed responsible when his dog attacks a person, but the owner could escape liability by showing more evidence in court than the plaintiffs that there was no prior history of the animal being dangerous.

But when a compromise between the House and Senate fell apart in the final days of this year’s legislative session, Simmons lashed out at Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian Frosh, a fellow Montgomery County Democrat, accusing him of lying and being incompetent.

This was hardly the first time Simmons has tussled with a powerful colleague. Annapolis insiders still talk about the time this year he cross-examined Environmental Matters Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh (D) on the House floor about a bill enabling public-private partnerships for major transportation and infrastructure projects. In fact, a number of Simmons’ colleagues have a “Lou story” – about a time when Simmons didn’t just oppose them, but did so with unusual intensity if not outright nastiness. There is at least one colleague who no longer speaks to Simmons as a result.

Simmons is unapologetic and says even if he makes enemies, “I have friends in the legislature who would charge a line with a bayonet for me, as I would for them.”

“I’m not the Vanna White of the legislature,” he continued. “But I’ve been honest. I’ve been straightforward.”

On another critical matter of public safety, Simmons casts himself as a crusader against gun violence – and did in fact vote for the gun control package that became law earlier this fall. But Simmons was initially sympathetic to the idea of exempting the AK-15 assault weapon from the gun control bill – until he was roundly criticized in a Washington Post editorial last spring.

And he spent the months leading up to the Oct. 1 assault weapons ban vocally criticizing the loophole that allowed Marylanders to buy an unlimited number of weapons until the law went into effect – an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the new law, in the opinion of gun control advocates. By shouting about the loophole so loudly, some advocates felt, Simmons was in fact publicizing it, making gun owners more likely to rush out and buy more weapons, and diminishing the new law in the public’s mind.

But for all Simmons’ experience with legal matters, he seems to skate around simple questions of legislative ethics.

Simmons is famous among his constituents for handing out or mailing large print Maryland road maps, accompanied by a humorous note about how one’s eyes get weaker as one gets older. According to an ethics complaint filed by Daniel Campos, a former Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Simmons and the other two Democratic House incumbents in District 17 in 2010, Simmons requested 6,000 such maps from the Maryland Department of Transportation in 2010, which were delivered gratis.

By contrast, according to data supplied to Campos by MDOT, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D), with a statewide constituency, requested just 300 large print roadmaps to deliver to constituents in 2010. Charles County Del. Peter Murphy (D) was the state legislator who requested the second-highest number of maps amount after Simmons – 300.

Simmons shrugged off the ethics complaint, noting that the sticker with his name on it, which he puts on every map, is far less prominent than O’Malley’s picture. He insists he pays for the envelopes and stamps used to mail out the maps.

“The maps are not printed for me,” he said. “They sit in warehouses.”

Simmons says he’s expecting all manner of attacks, as he prepares for his Democratic primary showdown with Kagan and/or Sen. Jennie Forehand, who has not yet disclosed her plans for 2014 but is likely to retire. Neither have begun to engage Simmons on the campaign trail yet.

“It’s the political season,” he said. “Candidly, if you’re the frontrunner, they’re going to attack you.”

Simmons concedes that he will have to defend himself on complex policy issues – “I realize I can’t get all this into a bumper sticker.”

But then the same can be said for Simmons’ critics who, as should be terribly evident from this article, have so far been reluctant to go after him publicly.

There’s an old lawyer joke that goes something like this: “When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When the law is on your side, argue the law. When neither is on your side, pound the table.”

Luiz Simmons seems uniquely equipped to do all three, sometimes simultaneously. He will be a formidable foe in 2014, especially if his critics are unwilling to come out of hiding.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .