Candidates for Orphan's Court don't campaign, they explain

October 14, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

The six candidates for three seats on the Howard County Orphan's Court are spending much of this election explaining to voters what the court does -- rather than why they should be elected.

A modern-day misnomer, the orphan's court meets once a week to review probate cases, resolve disputed estates and appoint guardians for juveniles who receive property in wills. Its name originally stems from a 16th century English court.

But the candidates say many voters ask them if the court is part of the county Department of Social Services or whether its judges handle custody cases and adoptions.

jTC One candidate, Democrat Francis Chase, said a voter even recently quizzed him on what he would do about child abuse if elected.

Mr. Chase, 61, of Dalton estimates that as many as 11,000 of the 12,435 votes cast for him in the primary election were from citizens who don't know what the court is because of its antiquated name.

"It's a misnomer," said Mr. Chase, a retired senior program analyst with the federal Healthcare Financing Administration in Woodlawn.

Another candidate, Democratic incumbent Rosemary Ford of Elkridge, has tried to address the confusion over the court's role by preparing a one-page description of its duties that she has given to voters during her 10 years in office.

"I've had so many people ask me, 'What is the Orphan's Court? What does it do?' " said Mrs. Ford, a 69-year-old former owner of a florist shop, who is the court's chief judge.

Two of the candidates, Mr. Chase and Republican Joyce Pope, said they would support efforts to change the court's name, possibly to probate court as is used in other states.

The confusion is familiar to Republican Charles Coles Jr., a Sykesville farmer and school bus contractor seeking his second term on the court.

Mr. Coles, 36, is the sixth member of his family to serve on the Orphan's Court.

"My family has always been involved," Mr. Coles said. "I knew it was my niche."

Through research and seminars, Mr. Coles has learned the first orphan's courts were established in 16th century England to manage estates left to spouses and children. The same form of court later was founded in America.

The six candidates said they're doing no fund-raising and little campaigning for the judgeships, jobs that pay $5,200 a year for the two associate judges and $6,000 a year for the chief judge.

The judges do not need to be lawyers, and they choose the chief judge.

Most of the candidates said they're seeking the office to fulfill a desire to perform public service. They acknowledge there are no issues facing the court, because its practices are regulated by state laws.

"Really, we don't have any issues," said Democrat George Skerry, a Howard Circuit Court bailiff and a retired audit liaison with the federal Social Security Administration in Woodlawn.

"It's really an issue of wanting to serve the public," said Mr. Skerry, a 64-year-old Ellicott City resident. "Everyone else can talk about the taxes."

To be an Orphan's Court judge, the candidates said, one must be compassionate yet fair, sympathetic but decisive, and a good listener -- with an understanding of probate laws. All said they have these skills.

Nicole Dyer Dumais, a 33-year-old Scaggsville Republican candidate, said she's received much of her qualifications for the judgeship at home, settling disputes among her three young children.

"I am a primary care-giver," said Mrs. Dumais, a certified public accountant. "I think that experience is a good start."

Like most of the candidates, Mrs. Pope is seeking a judgeship as her first elected post.

"It just seems to fit my interest and the time of my life," said Mrs. Pope, a 43-year-old homemaker from Scaggsville and a former congressional liaison at the federal Department of Transportation.

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