A Herald-Mail article details a Howard County ballot question seeking to eliminate the county’s Orphans’ Court, following the lead of two other jurisdictions and potentially creating a statewide rift in the judiciary.
Maryland’s Orphans’ Courts, established through the Maryland Constitution (Article IV, §§ 1 and 40), preside “over the administration of estates.” The courts have the “authority to direct the conduct of personal representatives” of an estate and have “jurisdiction over the guardianship of the property of minors and in some counties, [can appoint] guardians of minors.” The Maryland Judiciary has provided a brief description of the courts’ organization across the state:
Three Orphans’ Court judges sit in the City of Baltimore and each of Maryland’s counties, except Harford and Montgomery counties. (In those two counties, Circuit Court judges sit as Orphans’ Court judges.) Orphans’ Court judges run for general election every four years. Maryland’s Constitution requires Orphans’ Court judges to be Maryland citizens and residents of their jurisdiction for at least 12 months before their election. The Constitution was amended to require the judges in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County to be attorneys and barred in the State of Maryland. Those judges may preside over cases alone, whereas in the other jurisdictions, the three judges sit together in a panel to hear matters.
According to the Herald-Mail, the ballot question before voters in November would, if passed, put Howard in line with Montgomery and Harford counties, folding the Howard County Orphans’ Court’s duties into the Howard County Circuit Court. Proponents of the measure argue that the Circuit Court would be more efficient and that judges should not be elected – Howard elects all three of its sitting Orphans’ Court judges. However, Ann Dodd, Chief Judge for the Howard County Orphans’ Court, disputed the efficiency argument and claimed a “‘very specific and lower case load’ as reasons for faster processing than the Circuit Court.”
Upon the ballot question’s introduction as a bill in the Maryland General Assembly, several other parties voiced opposition to the measure, including three Orphans’ Court judges from Baltimore City and a single judge from Wicomico County. The latter argued that Orphans’ Courts offer greater freedom to hear familial disputes due to the specialized jurisdiction of the court and reduced caseload. Howard County voters can chime in at the ballot box on Tuesday, November 8th.