Orphans' judge finds herself out of law job To hold seat on bench, McNeal is forced to quit her private practice

December 16, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

When the Democratic Party asked Columbia attorney Sherae M. McNeal to run for judge of the Orphans' Court this year, someone probably should have mentioned that to hold the job, she would have to quit her law practice.

But apparently party officials and McNeal didn't know that in Howard County, practicing attorneys can't serve as Orphans' Court judges, who are paid about $6,000 a year for their part-time work.

Someone finally informed McNeal this month, a month after her election victory and shortly after her Dec. 2 swearing-in. She then telephoned Carole Fisher, the former local Democratic Party chairwoman.

"Upset isn't right. [McNeal was] just completely flat, completely, you know, just crushed," Fisher said yesterday. "I must say I was, too. I felt almost responsible. I mean, I had never heard of it, and I was the one who had recruited her.

"I mean, obviously, if I had known, we wouldn't have done it."

McNeal, one of three Orphans' Court judges in Howard, has quit practicing law, but Del. Frank S. Turner plans to file legislation amending state law to allow McNeal to resume her practice. Many other counties amended the law in past years to allow practicing attorneys on their Orphans' Courts.

McNeal wouldn't comment on the prohibition, which stems from the notion that judges should avoid potential conflicts of interest while on the bench.

According to McNeal's law partner, Patrick O'Guinn, her Columbia practice included estate planning. The Orphans' Court handles estate matters such as determining the authenticity of wills and resolving family disputes over assets.

"You can't very well expect a lawyer who's in private practice to make this her only job," said Turner, who is a former Orphans' Court judge in Howard.

Turner, a Democrat, expects that his bill will have little difficulty passing because other counties have dealt similarly with the issue, but it likely wouldn't become law until shortly after the General Assembly adjourns its 90-day session in mid-April. Until then, McNeal's law practice will have to remain on hold.

"It's a shame," Fisher said. "I hope it works out for her."

Pub Date: 12/16/98

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