Dusting off 17th century rape laws

A Maryland lawmaker evokes English common law as part of a history lesson.

Published April 6, 2007 7:23PM (EDT)

This seems to be the week of outrageous no-way-he-said-that courtroom commentary. At a hearing Tuesday on a Maryland bill to deny parental rights to men who father a child through rape, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, quoted English common law, reports the Washington Post.

Modern rape laws did nothing for Vallario's argument against the proposed legislation -- that fathers could lose their parental rights without being convicted of rape in a criminal court and that women might concoct false rape claims -- so he flipped back a couple of centuries and quoted jurist Sir Matthew Hale. The chosen quote was commonly read to juries under English common law: "Rape is an accusation easily to be made, hard to be proved, and harder yet to be defended by the party accused." In defense of his comments, Vallario said he was simply trying to give the committee a brief history lesson.

There was plenty of outrage from the 22 committee members -- six of whom are women. "I respect Joe, but I did think his comments were insensitive ... I'm concerned with the perception of many committee members that women are out to misuse the system," said Kathleen M. Dumais, the bill's sponsor. Lisae Jordan, legislative counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the Post: "People were a bit taken aback that the chairman of the committee would be citing what is archaic and misogynistic doctrine. We hope these are not his personal views."

I'd venture to say these are his personal views. The thing is, Vallario's basic point is reasonable -- false rape claims do happen and it would be unconstitutional for a family court to determine a man to be a rapist without a guilty verdict from a criminal trial. Thankfully, we are subject to the modern judicial system, which holds a man innocent until proven guilty. But Vallario seems to have an underlying distrust of that judicial process. That's a serious issue to take up with the criminal justice system -- not during a hearing on what seems a totally reasonable bill.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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