Court clerk job appeals to them Democrat Gordon challenges Duckworth for unglamorous job

October 16, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

It is anything but a glamorous elected office.

The clerk of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County does the nuts-and-bolts job that keeps the courts from drowning in the paperwork they amass and provides a variety of services to the public.

So low-key is the $64,000-a-year post that many groups that hold candidate nights don't bother inviting the contenders for the job.

Be that as it may, Robert P. Duckworth, 58, the Republican incumbent from Crofton, and private-practice lawyer Karl H. Gordon, 37, a Democrat from Churchton, are vying for the post.

Holding his campaign costs to less than $1,000, Gordon is going door-to-door and attending local Democrat and civic functions.

He said he cut his political teeth helping his mother work for school board candidates when he was growing up in Montgomery County, but this is his first foray into Anne Arundel politics. He worked in several law offices before striking out on his own.

Duckworth sports a GOP tie almost daily. His office has nearly a dozen elephant ornaments, his desk has photos of him with prominent Republicans, and he volunteers in numerous campaigns.

"I'm not super-stitious," he said, but he rubs a borrowed good-luck ebony elephant trinket every day.

Duckworth worked for the Republican Research Committee on Capitol Hill and as manager in two federal offices, leaving to run unsuccessfully for Congress in 1990 and 1992. He was hired as chief deputy clerk in 1991. He expects to spend less than $12,000 campaigning in this race.

Both candidates say providing the best service, modernizing the office and leading a staff of 90 with varied responsibilities are key to the job.

But the issue that jumped to the fore was the civil marriage of a pregnant 13-year-old to a 29-year-old in the Anne Arundel courthouse in August.

It prompted Duckworth to call for establishing a state minimum marriage age of 16, with 14-year-olds allowed to marry under extenuating circumstances with permission of parents and a judge.

Gordon would prefer that the age be raised to 18 with exceptions for 16- and 17-year-olds that must be authorized by a judge. Both say whatever change the General Assembly makes should not conflict with criminal laws designed to protect children from sexual predators.

'A very big job'

The clerk's duties mainly involve recordkeeping. The office, which has a $3.5 million annual budget, is responsible for maintaining criminal and civil court files, issuing business and marriage licenses, compiling county land records, swearing in officials and performing civil weddings.

This year, the office will handle an estimated 25,000 legal cases, record an estimated 110,000 land records and issue more than 8,000 licenses. The clerk also supervises tasks that bring in about $55 million annually from property sales.

"It's a very big job," Duckworth said. "I have management experience and knowledge. You can't replace that."

Duckworth, who is president of the Maryland Clerk's Association, was elected in 1994. He said he has delivered on his pledges to upgrade computer technology and keep the office efficient and friendly as the courthouse was being rebuilt around him.

This spring, for example, the office received a perfect audit from the state, the first time that has happened, he said.

Call for computerization

Gordon says the office needs better supervision, a more rapid infusion of computers and better access to them, and the ability to move documents faster.

"I think it would be a refreshing change for the court to have an attorney come in and make it operate more efficiently. As a private attorney I've been on the other side of the counter, I've experienced the frustration," he said.

The county got its first courthouse computers in 1991. The system allows visitors, or anyone with a paid state account, to read docket entries, akin to a table of contents.

The system is antiquated, Gordon says. He would like free Internet access that would include reading documents filed in cases, which would allow people to keep abreast of developments in their cases without going to the courthouse.

"It would be another example of government serving you," he said.

He also recommended shifting child support enforcement duties the state Department of Human Resources for several reasons. That is part of court administration now, with the county reimbursed about two-thirds of its expenses by the state.

He is also promoting a convenience to attorneys that is already popular in Prince George's County, allowing them to file legal papers after court is closed by bringing them to a District Court commissioner whose after-hours office is at the Circuit Courthouse.

Duckworth, who has brought about $500,000 in computer technology to the office, has kept pushing for more. The office is installing an imaging system for land records that could make tedious paper searches obsolete. But he said that state judicial officials, not county officials, have the last word on computerization.

Duckworth praised his staff and said he has heard no complaints about keeping up with filings.

He said he would like to see what else can be done to help litigants who are not represented by attorneys because they often need legal advice clerks cannot give.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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