The Maryland House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee on Friday held a hearing on a bill that would waive the publication requirement for name change petitions and protect the privacy of transgender Marylanders and domestic violence survivors.
State Del. Emily Shetty (D-Montgomery Country) reintroduced House Bill 39 during the opening week of the 2021 legislative session. The measure unanimously passed the House of Delegates last session only to fail to reach a vote in the state Senate due to the session’s early pandemic closure.
“This bill will help simplify and update the name change procedures for those who go through our courts,” Shetty told hearing participants virtually via Zoom. “By removing the publication requirements for those who file a motion to do so.”
Currently, Maryland Rule 15-901 establishes the procedures for name changes not involving marriage or adoption.
It states that as part of the process, a notice of the name change petition must be published “in a newspaper of general circulation,” in the county where the petitioner resides, unless the court grants a motion to waive this publication requirement.
FreeState Justice Legal Director CP Hoffman told committee members one problem is an inconsistency between the courts in approving or denying the requests, and this bill would “create a level floor for people regardless of where they live.”
A study cited by FreeState Justice on their website found trans women of color who were able to successfully change their name and gender were three times more likely to have stable housing, were less likely to postpone medical care and were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment.
Both Hoffman and Trans Maryland Executive Director Lee Blinder spoke to the committee about challenges and concerns trans Marylanders seeking a name change shared with them when finding their dead names could be published to the internet for the rest of their lives, increasing the likelihood of their facing discrimination or violence.
“Each time I must tell an 18 year old at one of the most empowering and exciting times of their life that their former name will be on the internet for the rest of their life it is among one of the hardest conversations that I have in my work,” Blinder said during the hearing. “That joy and excitement at being seen is dashed and worry, fear and embarrassment take over.”
Similarly, Melanie Shapiro, the public policy director for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, told the committee of the bill’s importance to the safety of domestic abuse survivors.
“The rule requires publication in an outlet in the county of residence of the petitioner,” Shapiro said. “So, if a survivor of domestic violence is seeking to establish themselves with some sort of anonymity and separate themselves from their abuser, they must then publish their name and the name that they seek to change to in their county of residence, in a publication of general circulation, and that information is very easily found on the internet now.”
Because of these safety concerns, Shetty told the Washington Blade this bill was an important one to bring back to the floor.
“This bill is important because it provides both parity and protection to two communities that are currently being harmed by our existing publication requirement for name changes,” she said. “Victims of domestic violence and transgender individuals who wish to go by their preferred name should not suffer irreperable harm in perpetuity solely because they happen to live in a jurisdiction that is less likely to grant a request to waive the publication requirement.”
Though she voted for the bill in the prior session, state Del. Susan McComas (R-Harford County) asked if family members would still be able to track individuals despite the change.
“I understand the issue of publication,” McComas said. “But what if family members want to locate the person for health issues and stuff families are interested in?”
Both Shetty and Hoffman responded that nothing in the bill would require court records to be sealed as it only affects the requirement to publish the notice publicly.
Vince McAvoy, a resident who also testified before 2013 Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making, told the committee he opposed this legislation because to him it sounded like an “abuse of the system” for a group “seeking lifestyle changes.”
He rejected the domestic violence survivor concerns stating other organizations could help prevent the tracking of survivors. McAvoy also stated he knew of child custody cases where avoiding the requirement to publish name changes skirted “safeguards” in the system against such “abuse.”
“If we have no publication, we have no notice and we have no safeguards whatsoever,” he told the committee.
Shetty told the Blade that McAvoy frequently testifies before committee, particularly in opposition to bills protecting domestic violence survivors.
Hoffman said last year the state’s judiciary submitted a short statement opposing limits to what they perceived to be judicial discretion, but said their silence this year was noteworthy.
Another difference this year is the addition of state Del. Brenda Thiam (R-Washington County), a new committee member who made history last year as the state legislature’s first Black female Republican. Thiam signaled her support for the bill.
“I feel that it is important to do whatever we can do through the legislative process to keep citizens safe from those who may have harmed them physically or emotionally,” Thiam said. “If the person who wants to change their name does not want to publicize it in the newspaper in order to protect their privacy and keep themselves safe from possibly being harmed again, they should not be required to do so and should be exempt from this step.”
Thiam, who has an advanced degree in education and spent years working in special education as both an instructor and an administrator, took a direct approach to her position.
“If the person has to go to the length of changing their name to keep themselves safe,” she told the Blade. “Publicizing it in the newspaper contradicts that effort.”
Shetty said state Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the Judicial Committee, has not yet publicly announced the next steps for this bill, but stated under the legislature’s new operating rules for this session that all subsequent hearings and votes will be live-streamed and virtual.