Clerk lifts office ban on title searcher

Court official issued order for `foul language'

Howard County

January 22, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A title searcher was banned from the Howard County clerk's office for more than a week after he says he lightheartedly -- and crudely -- compared Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport to a stubborn farm animal and a rear-end body part.

Rappaport's Jan. 13 order barring title searcher Frank Neubauer III from using the office, which is the primary source of his research, was lifted yesterday, but not before it sparked allegations that the clerk, who has held the job since 1990, was tromping on Neubauer's constitutional rights.

Rappaport's decision to rescind her order, which noted "disruptive behavior and foul language ... in front of employees and the public," before its Feb. 10 expiration also quashed plans by Neubauer and Jim Hanson, a lawyer he contacted for advice, to walk into the clerk's office this week in defiance of the order.

"It's all over with a whimper instead of a bang," said Hanson, who added that he is planning to file a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union on Neubauer's behalf. "I don't think you have to do a whole lot of research to know the clerk, because of some comment made about her ... doesn't have the right to ban someone from the courthouse."

But Rappaport said she sought legal advice before putting the ban in effect and insists she has the right to do whatever is needed to make certain her office is run "in a professional manner."

"I'd do it again," she said yesterday. "People do not have to listen, coming into a public office ... to such language."

Judge Diane O. Leasure, the county's administrative Circuit Court judge, said Rappaport has the right to control her office and to "take whatever appropriate action need be to quell the disturbance."

Still, David Rocah, a staff attorney for the ACLU in Baltimore, said that action does not include the authority to issue a "quasi-judicial" order. If someone was disrupting the office, the clerk could call police and asked that he or she be arrested for disorderly conduct, he said. The mere use of crude language "is not in and of itself illegal, as much as people dislike it," he said.

"What this is similar to is a judge holding somebody in contempt," he said. "But a clerk isn't a judge and, more importantly, a judge, like other judicial officials, is supposed to have a thick skin."

The "banning order" was issued a few days after Neubauer says he referred to the clerk as a "jackass" during a conversation with friends at the courthouse, and said that she would be re-elected even if people forgot her name and instead wrote the anatomical name of a rear-end body part on their ballots.

Neubauer, 49, who with his brother and father runs Neubauer Abstracts Inc., said his words did not appear to interrupt the work or flow of the office.

"I wish, in hindsight, I had used less coarse verbiage, but ... I'm still entitled to my personal opinion," said Neubauer, who said he is an ordained minister.

He said he thought nothing more of the conversation, which was sparked by Rappaport's decision to rearrange chairs by the front counter, until a sheriff's deputy served him with a copy of the order Jan. 13.

But Rappaport said that more than one person -- she would not say whether they were employees or patrons -- was disturbed by the talk and reported it to her, although they said Neubauer used other crude words. She also said she would not have had a problem with the language if it had been uttered behind closed doors.

The order was not issued out of "spite," it was not given because the offensive words referred to her, and it was not because the incident involved Neubauer, who has been a vocal opponent to her plans to move the land records out of the courthouse, Rappaport said. Neubauer said this week that he believes the ban came out of a "personal vendetta."

"I'm not a hard person, but I know what's right and what's wrong, and what he did was wrong," Rappaport said.

The day after Rappaport issued the order, Neubauer's brother, Steve, and father, Frank Jr., went to see her. As a result of their talk, Neubauer III said he wrote a letter explaining his actions.

In yesterday's memo rescinding the banning order, Rappaport said the Jan. 14 letter was "assurance that you will act in a civil manner while you are in the office of the clerk of Circuit Court for Howard County."

"I think everyone is entitled to make mistakes," Rappaport said. "He does have five children, and I did take that into consideration. I think he has learned that you just can't do things like that."

All told, Neubauer, who said the ban kept him awake at night and gave him stomachaches, was barred from the clerk's office for 5 1/2 business days.

In that time, he and his family said, his absence from the clerk's office had a substantial impact on their business, which has its office is in a house next to the circuit courthouse. Steve Neubauer was forced to do the work of two men and the business struggled to keep up, they said.

"I'm happy that he's back, but I'm so tired," Steve Neubauer said yesterday.

And while Neubauer III was happy to be back in the land records section yesterday, he said he feels compelled to follow through with the ACLU complaint.

"As an elected official, the buck's gotta stop somewhere," he said "I feel like this burden of responsibility is put on me to make sure it doesn't happen to somebody else."

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