Maryland has long prided itself as the only state that refused to pass the 18th Amendment, which imposed prohibition in 1919. Throughout the 1920s, the State House had its own official bootlegger, booze flowed freely through Baltimore, and Marylanders adopted the nickname of “the Free State” to signify their commitment to individual liberty and the fundamental right of every citizen to imbibe.
However, Maryland also failed to ratify another Progressive Era constitutional amendment, the 17th, which in 1913 instituted the direct election of United States Senators. The hope was that allowing voters to choose their own Senator would end, or at least limit, the out-of-control corruption that resulted from corporations bribing state legislators to appoint their preferred politician. While the 17th Amendment has long been uncontroversial, the rise of the Tea Party has brought opposition to this democratic practice back into the mainstream for the first time since before World War I.
However, in what the Baltimore Sun described as “a rebuke to tea party leaders,” Maryland State Senator Jamin Raskin is introducing a bill that would allow the state to finally ratify the 17th Amendment — and, in a challenge to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, offer a reminder of times when the guardians of the Constitution worried about the corrupting influence of unlimited money in politics. State Senator Raskin told The National Memo that his bill is a “great way to get everyone thinking in constitutional terms” about Citizens United. Raskin, who is also a professor at American University’s Washington School of Law, described that controversial decision to allow unlimited corporate donations to political campaigns as “a radical departure from centuries of our jurisprudence.” He sees his legislation as an opportunity for states “to be constitutional actors and to kick off a nationwide movement to deal with the electoral corruption.”
Although Maryland is a solidly Democratic state and the 17th Amendment has been the law of the land for a century, ratification there would still be meaningful. Direct election of Senators was implemented after the famed excesses of the 19th century robber barons. (President Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, was known as the “trust-buster” for trying to break up the giant monopolies that basically bought control of the political system.) Maryland lawmakers may no longer have their own bootlegger, but passing this bill would be well worth a celebratory toast.