Order in the court

When Maryland voters go to the polls next month, they'll face decisions on three statewide questions that would impact the state constitution. The first two are straightforward — whether to hold a constitutional convention (a measure we believe is unnecessary and potentially problematic) and whether to amend the constitution to limit the right to a jury trial in civil disputes to lawsuits where the amount in controversy is greater than $15,000, a reasonable reform that would save money and help speed the docket.

But the third may confound voters unfamiliar with the Maryland Orphans' Court, the state's probate court where matters involving wills and estates are resolved. It would require the judges of the Orphans' Court in Baltimore City to be lawyers in good standing with the state bar.

That requirement is not only appropriate, but it's about two centuries overdue. Having people serve as judges who have no legal background is roughly equivalent to staffing emergency rooms with physicians who haven't been to medical school. Sometimes, knowledge counts.

Baltimore City's Orphans' Court is one of the busiest in the state. Most any day, its judges are making decisions affecting scores of local residents where such complex legalities as the rules of evidence and civil procedure may be in dispute. If judges are to serve as umpires, they need to know the difference between a ball and a strike — and perhaps even the infield fly rule.

The current system is something of a relic that can be traced to London's Court for Widows and Orphans that Lord Baltimore brought to what was then a British colony. Matters involving death, taxes and inheritance are far more complicated today.

Requiring judges to be lawyers should not only increase the court's expertise but also its efficiency — as it is, lay judges must have every ruling reviewed and co-signed by a fellow judge who is a lawyer. Lawyer-judges don't require this duplication of effort.

This is particularly important for busy courts like Baltimore City's. Rural counties tend to face a less pressing caseload. That may account for how a county such as the Eastern Shore's Dorchester can pay its judges $3,500 a year, while Baltimore City pays its judges more than 20 times that much. Perhaps, in cases such as Dorchester's, it may make some sense for lay people to serve, but Baltimore's circumstances are far different.

The same is likely true for other large Maryland jurisdictions, but the efforts to seek a statewide requirement that Orphans' Court judges be attorneys have failed; proponents from the Baltimore City delegation were only able to get the legislature to put the question on the ballot by making it a local matter. Even so, because the Orphans' Court is established under the state constitution, changing the requirements for Baltimore alone requires approval from voters statewide.

One quirk this year is that voter approval of Question 3 would mean that Ramona Moore Baker, a candidate for the city court, would not be legally qualified to take office because she is not a lawyer. That circumstance (being elected and rejected on the same ballot) is unusual but should not deter voters from doing the right thing.

While most people never walk into an Orphans' Court, we're all bound by its decisions. Death and taxes may be certainties in life, but legal expertise is not, particularly when judges aren't required to have the necessary understanding of the law.

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