Give the judge a break

Howard County: New Orphans Court judge shouldn't have to yield her full-time job as a lawyer

February 16, 1999

NO WONDER it's hard to get qualified people to commit to public service these days. Consider Sherae M. McNeal, a lawyer who was elected to the Howard County Orphans Court last November. Ms. McNeal, who was urged to run for the post by Democratic Party officials, may lose her livelihood as a result. State law says you can't practice law and serve as an Orphans' Court judge.

The people who urged Ms. McNeal to run for the probate post didn't know that. She didn't learn of the law until after she was sworn in. Having committed to serve as a judge, she stopped practicing law. But the $6,000 a year that Orphans Court judges make for meeting once a week won't pay the bills.

An exception should be made so Ms. McNeal can resume her primary vocation. Unfortunately, the Howard County legislative delegation has been dragging its feet.

The senators and delegates considered the matter last Wednesday, but took no vote. Some were concerned about enacting legislation for one person. But this issue affects an entire class of people -- lawyers.

In fact, the precedent has already been set by Baltimore City, Harford, Montgomery, Prince George's and Calvert counties, which have enacted exception laws. Until state law changes for every jurisdiction, Howard County should allow exceptions, too.

Ms. McNeal's experience in estate planning is what made her an attractive candidate for Orphans Court. She received the most votes among six candidates for the three slots. This legislation wisely prohibits Ms. McNeal from practicing estate law while she serves as Orphans Court judge.

The Howard County legislators should enact Del. Frank S. Turner's bill that would allow Ms. McNeal to return to her law practice. To do otherwise would send the wrong message to others considering elective office as a way to give back to their communities.

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