City Orphans' Court hires judge, despite low pay

April 29, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

A judgeship on Baltimore's Orphans' Court once was a political plum. More recently, however, with the court nearly collapsing under a backlog of cases, the position has been seen as a full-time headache with part-time pay.

So why would Joyce M. Baylor Thompson want the job?

"The court was in trouble, and I thought I could be an asset," said Judge Thompson, 38, a state Department of Assessments and Taxation lawyer who is to be formally sworn in as judge today. "If I had just looked at the salary I would never have accepted."

The $30,000 salary was the biggest reason former Judge David B. Allen left the court in January. With another judge out recovering from a heart transplant, that left only Chief Judge Michael Waring Lee on a bench built for three. And he, too, was slowed by chronic health problems.

So, around February, the city Orphans' Court, which rules on estates, contested wills and guardianship issues, approached meltdown.

"For a while we had two speeds: slow and stop," Judge Lee recalled this week.

Estates that normally would have been executed in August were still pending in January, said Sheldon S. Satisky, a probate lawyer who is the liaison between the state bar association and the state's Orphans' Court judges.

"What the bar couldn't understand was, 'Why was the situation perpetuating itself?' " he said.

When Judge Lee lists the reasons for the crisis, he starts with the salary. For years, he has pushed for a raise to acknowledge that the job, part time in rural counties, is full-time work in Baltimore. Furthermore, the judges are effectively prohibited from keeping an outside practice in probate law, their specialty.

Because other state judges make salaries approaching $90,000, Orphans' Court judges in the city should make at least $65,000, Judge Lee said.

Orphans' Court judges need not be lawyers -- and throughout much of the state they are not, he said. But in Baltimore City, traditionally, they have been lawyers.

"It's a problem to find people to take these jobs," said Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. For example, the opening created by Judge Allen's resignation attracted only three applicants.

The legislature has approved a raise for city Orphans' Court judges to $45,000, but the judges won't get the additional money until late this year -- after running for re-election.

That was too long to wait for Judge Allen, who left after nine years on the bench to work at the city solicitor's office.

"I didn't want to wait another year," said Mr. Allen, who for the past few years sought a job that would pay better and offer insurance to cover treatments for a college-age son with kidney problems. He said the Orphans' Court job is "under-rated and undervalued.

"For some reason it's sort of looked down on as a stepchild for the judiciary, but for 99 percent of the people who lose a relative and have to go to probate, it's their first contact with the courts."

The court is Maryland's oldest and, apparently, one of the nation's oldest.

Recalling its history, Judge Lee noted that the short life expectancy in Colonial times made taking care of orphaned children a major social problem.

Over the centuries, a greater emphasis was placed on probating wills. But, these days, Judge Lee is seeing an increase in cases involving children left orphaned by parents who died of AIDS or from violent crime.

"I want to flat out predict we are at the cusp of a change in our caseload that will be of historic dimensions," he said. "I suspect that by the end of this decade, cases involving the protection of both the persons and property of children will equal, and maybe exceed, the number of cases for probate.

"It's sad because the reason for this will be misery. We may, in fact, be coming full circle to our roots."

Attracting Judge Thompson to the court was a coup, he added. Her experience as head of the guardianship unit of the state Office on Aging and as a social worker make her ideal for a court moving back toward an emphasis on children.

"I think she's right on time," he said. "Her expertise, her knowledge of resources outside the court system, her contacts, her compassion make her simply the perfect choice for this time."

Still, the Orphans' Courts face challenges.

Chief Judge Murphy said the courts are a "relic" and should be consolidated with the Circuit Courts, as is done in Harford and Montgomery counties. But politicians are loathe to abolish any elected office, he said. And defenders argue that the judges specialize in probate and estate law.

In Baltimore, the recent staffing crisis was abated when Chief Judge Murphy sent Orphans' Court judges from Baltimore and Prince George's counties to eliminate much of the backlog.

But the relatively low salary remains a problem, Judge Lee said. "I think over the coming weeks we'll be coming back to speed, but I hasten to add the problem will be reoccurring if we do not address the underlying causes."

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