Ballot Question No. 5 proposes a constitutional amendment to do away with the three elected judges of the Orphans’ Court of Howard County. Their duties would be assigned to a judge of the Circuit Court, as is currently done in Montgomery and Harford counties. Although the proposed amendment, on its face, would affect only Howard County the current judges of the Orphans’ Court for Talbot County, that is, Paul S. Carroll, David J. Wheeler, and Jack Hall, unanimously oppose the adoption of Ballot Question No. 5. Their opposition is shared by nearly all of their colleagues on that Court in other counties, who, collectively, have drafted an argument against adoption of the proposed amended.
One stated objection to the current system is that it allows judicial functions to be performed by non-lawyers. However, as pointed out in the argument, “[m]any states . . . have “lay” (non-attorney) judges in specialty courts like probate and others where the breadth of the law … is very narrow.” Because many Circuit Court judges come up through the ranks of prosecutors, their knowledge of Orphans’ Court procedures, in contrast, is sometimes non-existent.
The Orphans’ Court are a bargain for the taxpayers. The demand on many Circuit Court dockets are at, if not over, the limit of those Courts’ capacity. Such courts rely extensively upon retired judges to deal with the overload. Criminal trials, correctly, are given the inside track on the docket calendar in order to afford an accused a speedy trial. Family law issues add to the strain. In the region of the upper Shore, from Cecil County to Talbot County, it would not be possible to timely address probate issues without adding another Circuit Court judge, whose annual salary, exclusive of benefits, currently is $174,400. Such a judge would need a secretary, a law clerk, and an office, adding to the cost. The sum of the annual salaries of all of the Orphans’ Court judges in Talbot County is less than $20,000.
The Orphans’ Court provides a user-friendly forum for families to resolve issues relating to inheritance matters. Very often, hearings are conducted without anyone being represented by an attorney. In a number of instances, while one side may be represented by an attorney, the opposing side is able to present its own case without such assistance. Hearings are usually informal in which no one attempts “Perry Mason”-style cross-examination. A lack of familiarity with formal presentation of evidence is not a disqualification.
There is nothing wrong with the system as it exists. It works fairly, expeditiously, and efficiently. As the argument of the collective body of judge’s state:
Of over 10,000 judgment orders over the past 12 years in Howard County, only 43 were appealed, only five of those were actually heard (the rest settled, withdrawn or dismissed) and only 2.5 were of the verdicts were changed, –2.5 of over 10,000, a microscopic 0.00025%.
The proposed change would be “the camel’s nose under the tent.” Those who wish to abolish the elected Orphans’ Court will use success in Howard County to pursue such change state-wide, infringing on the voters’ right to select such judges on a four-year cycle, from their own county. As further noted in the collective argument:
Orphans’ Courts provide quick, affordable access to the legal processes necessary to close out the worldly affairs of those who have passed on. The atmosphere is compassionate, friendly, less formal than the Circuit Courts, and is uniquely conducive to helping grieving families navigate the necessary procedures. It is not a criminal or civil suit environment. Abolishing it will lead to increased costs (filing fees) and lengthy delays to get matters settled in the Circuit Court.
By Orphans’ Courts Judges Paul Carroll, John Hall, and David Wheeler of Talbot County
Letters to Editor
Bob Wenneson says
This amendment only applies to Howard County (as stated here and on Sample Ballots). But am in agreement that having this narrow field of law handled by its own specialists, not the already overburdened Circuit court judges, makes sense. What doesn’t make sense to me is that (1) it is a three-man (person) panel that must unanimously reach decisions. Seriously? Excepting the Supreme Court, there are one-man judicial decisions being made in most fields of law countrywide – including criminal cases where a defendant’s life-in-jail decisions can potentially result.
And (2), to me it makes no sense that Orphans Court judges are elected positions being decided by voters, versus an appointment to the position being decided by a high-ranking county or state official (or committee). These type decisions being made citizen voters who have little-to-no knowledge of the candidates’ merits (or for that matter have little knowledge of what the position even involves) makes no sense. Same for Clerk of Court. Same for Register of Wills. For these positions, the public voting process is a waste of taxpayer money and time and of course is also a waste of candidates’ time in going through the steps of proving their worth to a minimally engaged (unfortunate but true) voting public.
Marie Velong says
If these decisions were made by appointment, they would have already been made. Having them voted on by the people who are affected most by the decisions is a great idea and not one to be diminished.
Leslie Smith Turner says
Thank you ever so much. Can we get this to the Baltimore Sun and its spend off papers, ie. Laural Leader, Columbia Flier, Howard County Times, etc. as well as the Washinton Post. Time is of the essence People are already voting!!!!
Melissa Pollitt Bright says
Unanimity is NOT required for the Orphans’ Court to make a ruling, merely a simple majority. As for three judges rather than one, the combined perspectives of three judges is often a great boon to deciding these matters which affect families at some of the lowest points of their lives. The court was deliberately created to be a consensus tribunal, so that this very different type of law can be handled in a way that adheres to the law while being adjudicated by members of the same community as the deceased, chosen by and from among that community.