Candidates in stampede for state's lowliest court CAMPAIGN 1994

July 17, 1994|By Sheridan Lyons and John A. Morris | Sheridan Lyons and John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writers

Due to an editing error, A. Gordon Boone was incorrectly identified as an attorney in an article on Orphans' Court races in ++ Sunday's editions.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

The state's lowliest court has record numbers of candidates this year in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, all vying for a part-time judgeships that don't require a law degree -- or much else.

In each county, they're running for one of three seats on the Orphans' Court -- the oldest in Maryland and possibly in the nation -- a job that critics see as a political plum that should have withered long ago.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

In Baltimore County, the field of 21 includes two incumbents, along with lawyers, courthouse clerks, party activists, a parole officer, a bus driver, business people, and an unemployed car salesman.

Anne Arundel's 17 candidates for the Sept. 13 primary election include officials of both parties, as well as lawyers, accountants and a hospital secretary. The field of nine Democrats and eight Republicans is almost three times as large as the group that ran eight years ago, when the salary was much lower.

The man who oversees the Orphans' Court, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Maryland Court of Appeals, was amazed at the turnout: "I knew there would be some, but three pages [of candidates]? Oh, my."

"Seventeen folks running for Orphans' Court? It's utterly unbelievable," said former Anne Arundel Orphans' Court Judge Janet Owens, who resigned last month to run in the Democratic primary for Clerk of the Circuit Court.

Maryland's Orphans' Court -- the court that handles that handles wills and estates that is known in many states as probate court -- "goes back into antiquity," Judge Murphy said. The state's top jurist said there are no written qualifications for the job: It's not even clear that candidates must be 18 or registered voters, as required for other offices.

Unlike other judicial candidates, Orphans' Court judges run as partisans, and many candidates see the judgeship as a springboard into politics. Others filed after experiencing their own legal problems with wills and inheritances. Still others just see it as an interesting part-time job.

"It's not the money," laughed Ernest A. Sciascia, a semi-retired lawyer running in Baltimore County. There, the judges usually work from about 9 a.m. to noon daily. The two regular judges get $27,000 a year, while the chief judge gets $29,500.

In Anne Arundel, the job requires two days a week and pays $15,000 a year. It paid only $4,000 until 1986.

While Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have plenty of job-seekers, Baltimore City -- the only jurisdiction where Orphans' Court judges traditionally are lawyers -- recently had to beg and borrow judges from other counties to fill in.

"It's a problem to find people to take these jobs," Judge Murphy said.

In hopes of attracting more lawyers, the salary in the city has been raised from $35,000 to $40,000. This time, five Democrats and one Republican have filed.

From its Dickensian name, many people -- including some candidates -- assume that the court places orphans. Several candidates said they'd be good at the job because they "love children" or are "interested in working with children."

But the court has nothing to do with custody: It handles the assets and liabilities of those who die. A judge may appoint someone to handle an estate for a minor, but it's mostly routine inventories and approval of burial and other expenses.

Wills contested

Hearings do arise when survivors contest a will, or more often, from the still-considerable numbers of people who die without one. That's when the job gets interesting.

In Anne Arundel, those on the bench jokingly refer to it as the "court of grief and greed," said Orphans' Court Judge Judith L. Duckett.

"This is better than soap opera," said retiring Baltimore County Orphans' Court Judge John E. Ensor. "In a divorce, you have a husband and wife. In these cases, you can get two, three, four armed camps."

That's how bus driver John H. Walsh Jr. became a Democratic candidate in Baltimore County. His mother recently died, leaving seven children.

"It's amazing to find how brothers and sisters can act like pack rats when somebody dies," he said. "From that experience and reading up on the court, I thought I was qualified enough to do the job, and I see it as a job -- a mediator, an arbitrator, trying to see nobody knifes somebody."

Any case in the Orphans' Court can be taken up to the Circuit Court for a new hearing, but there aren't many appeals. Existing law also allows any county to make the Orphans' Court part of the Circuit Court, but only Harford and Montgomery have done so.

"The legislature likes to have some judges run in live elections," Judge Murphy observed.

That makes the obscure court a great place for political newcomers.

"Some of the people who are running are on the fringe of politics," said Anne Arundel's Judge Duckett. "It gives them an entree [into public office] that's a little easier."

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