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