Haslinger named master in chancery

March 06, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

Don't let Nancy Haslinger's old-style title fool you: She deals with some very contemporary issues -- divorce, custody and juvenile crime.

The 46-year-old Columbia lawyer is Howard County's new master in chancery, and the first woman to hold a judicial position in Howard Circuit Court.

Ms. Haslinger was sworn in last month as one of two county masters in chancery, a title that dates back several hundred years to the days when the British monarchy addressed such family matters as divorces and adoptions.

Ms. Haslinger replaces W. Girard Schwessinger Jr., who retired last month after about 12 years on the bench. The job has an annual salary of about $53,000.

"She possesses the experience, the maturity and the temperament to serve as a master," said Raymond Kane Jr., the court's administrative judge. "We were convinced she will make a positive contribution to the Circuit Court."

To select the new master in chancery, the court's four judges sought endorsements from bar associations and then interviewed the top candidates, Judge Kane said. About 60 lawyers sought the position.

Ms. Haslinger stood out from other candidates because of her education and employment experience, Judge Kane said.

A former psychiatric social worker and legislative aide, Ms. Haslinger believes she will bring a fresh perspective to the court as a woman, but that will not override her duty to be fair to all parties.

"I don't know if we'll have any difference in my opinions," said Ms. Haslinger, who specialized in family law as an attorney. "I don't think I'll be biased in one direction or the other."

The county master's office handles about 2,000 domestic and juvenile cases a year, according to court officials. The other master is Bernard Raum, who has been in office for 12 years.

Ms. Haslinger, who has two teen-age children, said she expects the most difficult cases to handle will be child-custody disputes between parents.

She says that being a mother who also has experience as a social worker will give her a different perspective in these cases, especially on how the outcome in court will affect children.

"I think being a mother does make a difference in this kind of thing," she said. "I think I know the realities of dealing with kids."

Ms. Haslinger said criminal cases involving juveniles also will be difficult, particularly when having to balance the needs of a troubled youth with the needs of the victim and the community.

To help prepare for issuing sentences in these cases, Ms. Haslinger said she plans to tour facilities for juvenile offenders, such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill.

Among her other duties, Ms. Haslinger is responsible for conducting hearings in domestic cases that involve disputes over alimony, child support and visitation rights.

After the hearings, she will have to prepare recommendations for settling the disputes that will go to a Circuit Court judge, who will issue a final decision.

Ms. Haslinger said she hopes to institute several changes in the court's operations that she thought would have been helpful when she was a lawyer bringing cases before the master in chancery.

She said she plans to encourage all parties with cases in the master's office to take their disputes to private mediators to reach settlements and avoid lengthy court battles.

Ms. Haslinger said she hopes the court will appoint a coordinator to manage cases involving mediators, whose fees would be shared by the plaintiffs and defendants.

The court currently does not require mediation, leaving it optional for the parties in each case.

Ms. Haslinger noted that Montgomery and Prince George's counties have successfully established mediation programs.

But when cases come before her, Ms. Haslinger said she hopes to issue rulings and recommendations as quickly as possible to avoid a lengthy waiting period for the parties.

Ms. Haslinger said she believes it's important to issue decisions swiftly, particularly those involving such matters as alimony and child support that affect the daily lives of the litigants.

As a lawyer, Ms. Haslinger said she found it took some cases as long as six months to get resolved, with some of the delays caused by the need for another Circuit Court judge.

Ms. Haslinger said she decided to seek the master in chancery position after several acquaintances urged her to apply for the job.

The opportunity coincided with the death of her law partner, Jerome Colt.

A 1986 graduate of the University of Baltimore's law school, Ms. Haslinger formed a law practice in Columbia with Mr. Colt in 1990. Mr. Colt died of cancer in December.

Ms. Haslinger said she is looking forward to a long future in a job with an old name.

"I'm here," she said. "This is what I expect to do for the foreseeable future."

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