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Hon. Joyce M. Baylor-Thompson: For Orphans’ Court, smaller jurisdictions need flexibility

On behalf of the Conference of Orphans’ Court Judges, I would like to respond to the Editorial Advisory Board’s column, “Orphans’ Court judges need legal training.”

We agree that attorneys are warranted in the larger jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Baltimore County, but we disagree with the suggestion that all jurisdictions should have only judges who are attorneys. What your readers don’t know is that diversity exists on the Orphans’ Courts throughout the state of Maryland. It makes sense to have attorneys serve as judges in the larger jurisdictions because of the volume of the caseload and the independence of the attorney-judge in hearing cases.

In accordance with the Estates & Trusts Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland, a judge who is not an attorney cannot sit and hear cases independently or do any act of the court independently. The judges who are attorneys in the larger jurisdictions can independently hear cases, sign orders, address matters of urgency in their court, and write memorandums of law in complex litigated matters. This ability to sit independently helps the larger jurisdictions to operate more efficiently and expeditiously, thereby avoiding any backlog of work. However, the needs of the larger counties, as mentioned above, do not reflect the needs of the smaller, more rural counties as it relates to their Orphans’ Courts.

A rule/option may work well in one jurisdiction, but may not be a perfect fit in another jurisdiction. Suggesting that all jurisdictions have attorneys is not warranted in the smaller, more rural jurisdictions where the caseloads are much smaller. Many of our lay judges serve in the smaller, more rural jurisdictions. The Orphans’ Courts in those jurisdictions work very well. The three judges sit en banc (all three judges sit simultaneously) to hear cases and rule on matters of probate. This process works better in the less populated counties, without foregoing efficiency.

Many of the lay judges who sit on the Orphans’ Court bench throughout the state of Maryland are exemplary leaders in their respective communities. Many of these judges are college-educated with various backgrounds in business or corporate management, real property, finance, banking, law enforcement and education; some are CEOs of their corporations. These judges come with a wealth of experience and knowledge that has served as a great resource in assisting them in making some of the crucial decisions on the bench.

The lay judges on this bench have had an average of at least 50 hours of legal training on issues of probate. These judges currently receive annual training at the Judicial Institute, alongside many other judges who represent various other courts in the state of Maryland. With their diverse backgrounds and legal training, these judges are able to make reasonable and competent decisions regarding the administration of estates.

In addition, the larger jurisdictions are open for court on a daily basis, whereas the smaller jurisdictions meet one to two times per week for court. The salary of the Orphans’ Court judges, as well as the funding to operate the court, is under the county/city budget. None of the judges are state employees. The annual salary of the average lay judge in the smaller, more rural jurisdictions is between $3,400 and $10,000. The lay judges are dedicated in performing their jobs and it certainly is not for any monetary gain or reward. Therefore, these judges serve as public servants to their communities, many times expending their own time and financial resources to get the job done.

In its column, the Editorial Advisory Board pulled quotes from a document that was written in support of a Constitutional Amendment that would apply in Baltimore City only. The Conference would like to clarify statements made by the Board regarding the Maryland Association of Judges of the Orphans’ Court (MAJOC). MAJOC certainly supports legislation that may be best to serve one particular jurisdiction, but under no circumstances did MAJOC advocate for all Orphans’ Courts to have attorneys on its bench, especially understanding the needs of the smaller more rural jurisdictions, where a change of this magnitude is not warranted. MAJOC does not impose views about what may be best for one jurisdiction onto another jurisdiction. MAJOC had previously supported legislation that would have allowed each local jurisdiction to make changes to its court, provided those changes were supported by each county delegation, without making changes to the Constitution.

We say to the Editorial Advisory Board and The Daily Record’s readers, don’t be so quick to throw the lay judges out: They perform an essential public service with very little money, and they bring their own strengths to the table.

The Hon. Joyce M. Baylor-Thompson chairs the Conference of Orphans’ Court Judges, a 14-member panel appointed by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Maryland. Baylor-Thompson is the chief judge of the Orphans’ Court for Baltimore City.

Editor’s note: Questions 1 and 2 on Tuesday’s statewide ballot would require that Orphans’ Court judges in Prince George’s County and Baltimore County, respectively, be admitted to practice law in Maryland and be members in good standing of the state bar.