Due to an editing error, A. Gordon Boone was incorrectly identified as an attorney in an article on Orphans' Court races in ++ Sunday's editions.
+ The Sun regrets the errors.
The state's lowliest court has record numbers of candidates this year in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, all vying for a part-time judgeships that don't require a law degree -- or much else.
In each county, they're running for one of three seats on the Orphans' Court -- the oldest in Maryland and possibly in the nation -- a job that critics see as a political plum that should have withered long ago.
In Baltimore County, the field of 21 includes two incumbents, along with lawyers, courthouse clerks, party activists, a parole officer, a bus driver, business people, and an unemployed car salesman.
Anne Arundel's 17 candidates for the Sept. 13 primary election include officials of both parties, as well as lawyers, accountants and a hospital secretary. The field of nine Democrats and eight Republicans is almost three times as large as the group that ran eight years ago, when the salary was much lower.
The man who oversees the Orphans' Court, Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy of the Maryland Court of Appeals, was amazed at the turnout: "I knew there would be some, but three pages [of candidates]? Oh, my."
"Seventeen folks running for Orphans' Court? It's utterly unbelievable," said former Anne Arundel Orphans' Court Judge Janet Owens, who resigned last month to run in the Democratic primary for Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Maryland's Orphans' Court -- the court that handles that handles wills and estates that is known in many states as probate court -- "goes back into antiquity," Judge Murphy said. The state's top jurist said there are no written qualifications for the job: It's not even clear that candidates must be 18 or registered voters, as required for other offices.
Unlike other judicial candidates, Orphans' Court judges run as partisans, and many candidates see the judgeship as a springboard into politics. Others filed after experiencing their own legal problems with wills and inheritances. Still others just see it as an interesting part-time job.
"It's not the money," laughed Ernest A. Sciascia, a semi-retired lawyer running in Baltimore County. There, the judges usually work from about 9 a.m. to noon daily. The two regular judges get $27,000 a year, while the chief judge gets $29,500.
In Anne Arundel, the job requires two days a week and pays $15,000 a year. It paid only $4,000 until 1986.
While Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have plenty of job-seekers, Baltimore City -- the only jurisdiction where Orphans' Court judges traditionally are lawyers -- recently had to beg and borrow judges from other counties to fill in.
"It's a problem to find people to take these jobs," Judge Murphy said.
In hopes of attracting more lawyers, the salary in the city has been raised from $35,000 to $40,000. This time, five Democrats and one Republican have filed.
From its Dickensian name, many people -- including some candidates -- assume that the court places orphans. Several candidates said they'd be good at the job because they "love children" or are "interested in working with children."
But the court has nothing to do with custody: It handles the assets and liabilities of those who die. A judge may appoint someone to handle an estate for a minor, but it's mostly routine inventories and approval of burial and other expenses.
Hearings do arise when survivors contest a will, or more often, from the still-considerable numbers of people who die without one. That's when the job gets interesting.
In Anne Arundel, those on the bench jokingly refer to it as the "court of grief and greed," said Orphans' Court Judge Judith L. Duckett.
"This is better than soap opera," said retiring Baltimore County Orphans' Court Judge John E. Ensor. "In a divorce, you have a husband and wife. In these cases, you can get two, three, four armed camps."
That's how bus driver John H. Walsh Jr. became a Democratic candidate in Baltimore County. His mother recently died, leaving seven children.
"It's amazing to find how brothers and sisters can act like pack rats when somebody dies," he said. "From that experience and reading up on the court, I thought I was qualified enough to do the job, and I see it as a job -- a mediator, an arbitrator, trying to see nobody knifes somebody."
Any case in the Orphans' Court can be taken up to the Circuit Court for a new hearing, but there aren't many appeals. Existing law also allows any county to make the Orphans' Court part of the Circuit Court, but only Harford and Montgomery have done so.
"The legislature likes to have some judges run in live elections," Judge Murphy observed.
That makes the obscure court a great place for political newcomers.
"Some of the people who are running are on the fringe of politics," said Anne Arundel's Judge Duckett. "It gives them an entree [into public office] that's a little easier."
One of them is Gail Schaffer, a volunteer coordinator with People Against Child Abuse, an Annapolis-based nonprofit group.
"I'm tired of sitting around on the outside while other people make all the decisions affecting my community," she said. "I thought this position would allow me to become involved in the political mechanism of Anne Arundel County from the bottom up."
Richard Ames, president of Arundel's Stony Creek Democratic Club, said his wife, Jean, had entered the Democratic primary because she "would be good at the job and because it's a good opportunity to get ahead. . . . Maybe later on down the line, you go for something bigger in politics."
In Baltimore County, politics played a big part in this year's bumper crop as seven Republicans, encouraged by County Executive Roger B. Hayden's upset victory in 1990, joined the fray in a contest that rarely sees a GOP primary.
"I think it's because we see a trend of success in the Republican Party for a change," said GOP candidate Molly H. Dugan. "So few Republicans usually file for things. . . . I feel like for the Republicans, it's a chance for a more complete takeover of the
'Time for a change'
Ms. Dugan, 45, a former educational services manager at The Sun who teaches college English and journalism, is the wife of Baltimore County District Judge Robert Dugan. After working "on the fringe of campaigns" and with the youngest of her six children off to school, she said, "It was time for a change for me. It's a first step into what I would like to be a political future."
A politically recognizable name can be important. In Anne Arundel, Judge Judith Duckett is the wife of Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr., a former state's attorney, which may have raised the post's political visibility there. She attributes the visibility to work the court itself has done to make seniors more aware of the need to arrange their affairs.
In Baltimore County, Judge Ensor is retiring, but his daughter-in-law, Julie L. Ensor, a telecommunications analyst, hopes to replace him. Candidate A. Gordon Boone, a lawyer, is the son of a District Court judge. And some of this year's GOP hopefuls say that incumbent Republican Sandra L. O'Connell-Hughes won last time around running as Sandra L. O'Connell because her name was similar to that of Sandra A. O'Connor, the county's popular state's attorney.
Others are just interested in the position. A. Alexandra Carter, a former instructor in English literature from St. Mary's College, wanted a part-time job and had worked with a similar court in Costa Rica a decade ago. She filed in Anne Arundel.
"I like the idea of a citizen court to go along with a citizen legislature," Ms. Carter said.
Although Judge Murphy said probate "is an area of law that requires some expertise," he praised some of those citizen-judges. A nurse and a former school superintendent have done excellent jobs, he said, and he recalled another judge in Western Maryland who liked to hold court around a wood stove.
Not everyone agrees with his assessment. Mr. Boone, for example, who lost a tough battle for Circuit Court clerk last time around, doesn't like the way Orphans' Court is set up even though he's seeking the job.
"Most people want it because it's a free ride of a job that should pretty much be abolished," he said. "It's a hearing officer's position, and it shouldn't even be called a judge.
"It's a very archaic position that probably served a purpose at one time. But to have these people walking around in black robes is an insult to people who worked [through] law school."
ORPHANS' COURT CANDIDATES
This is a list of candidates for Orphans' Court in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY
Republicans: Walter L. Campbell, Eugene Davis, Bruce Echard, Elaine M. Furth, Mary Sellman Jackson, Gail Schaffer, William A. Scott, David A. Tibbetts.
Democrats: Jean Ames, Cecil C. Burton, A. Alexandra Carter, Betsy K. Dawson, Judith L. Duckett, James A. Hoage, Norman J. Murphy Jr., Edith L. Segree, Calvin F. Shilling Sr.
Republicans: Matthew Carl Beery, Victoria C. Chambers, Molly H. Dugan, Edward Fowler, Beverly E. Goldstein, Raymond J. Krul, Sandra L. O'Connell-Hughes.
Democrats: Charles E. Arthur, G. Mitchell Austin, Betty Kelley Bell, A. Gordon Boone, Grace G. Connolly, Catherine A. Davis, Edward A Dewaters III, Julie L. Ensor, Clyde R. Goodrum, Doris Hyatt, Clemis A. Kaikis, Ernest A. Sciascia, John H. Walsh Jr., James L. White.