Election victory for orphans court judge may be short-lived

After a dozen years of trying to get elected to the Baltimore Orphans Court — first as its register of wills and later as a judge — Laudette Ramona Moore Baker finally got her wish on Election Day.

But the victory may be short-lived. While she was being elected to the vacant spot on the three-judge panel Tuesday, state voters were approving a constitutional amendment that bars her from taking the $65,000-a-year job because she's not a lawyer.

The situation has put Baker into a state of legal limbo and created a conundrum for the two sitting judges — both members of the Maryland bar who are dismayed that a nonjurist was elected to join them.

"It's probably the worst thing that could possibly have happened to this court," said Chief Judge Joyce M. Baylor-Thompson, who's served since 1994. "Nobody ever thought [it] would happen, [and] it's happened."

For the past 50 years, she said, every judge elected to the city's centuries-old Orphans' Court, which oversees wills and the administration of estates, has been a lawyer. But they weren't required to be under the constitution, which created the court in 1777.

That changed for Baltimore on Election Day, when statewide voters approved a new rule that applied only to Orphans' Court judges in the city. They now must also be lawyers, in addition to citizens and Baltimore residents. Most other Orphans' Court judges in counties throughout the state are still not required to be lawyers. Judges on Maryland's civil and criminal courts must be members of the Maryland State Bar.

And while Baker has claimed to be a lot of things — including a master barber, a health professional, a radio host and an interior designer — she's never been a lawyer.

Baker could not be reached for comment. She did not return multiple messages left via e-mail, voicemail, her campaign treasurer and her father, Daniel Moore, who lives at the address Baker listed with the election board. There was a car in the driveway of a home she owns on Woodlands Glen Road Thursday afternoon, though no one answered the door.

She told the Daily Record on Wednesday that she will file a lawsuit "very soon." And she has previously promised a court battle for anyone who attempts to prevent her from taking the post — even if it's the attorney general, said Baylor-Thompson.

"She indicated that she would fight," the judge said.

The attorney general's office issued an opinion this summer saying someone in Baker's circumstance, which was hypothetical at the time, likely couldn't take office "because he or she would not be qualified should the constitutional amendment be approved."

But Assistant Attorney General David K. Hayes also acknowledged in his analysis, that "there is no Maryland precedent dealing with the situation." The "final answer," he wrote, could "rest with the Court of Appeals."

Baker's campaign treasurer, Kedrick Scribner, suggested she could be "grandfathered" into the position.

"The bill being passed now … I don't think that should take her from the position," Scribner said during a brief telephone conversation Wednesday. "She's already got the votes."

And she's worked so hard, he added. "She's run for that [office] for quite some time," Scribner said.

Public records show Baker to be 51 years old. She's on "permanent disability" for an unnamed health condition, according to a letter filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, where she's in the process of divorcing her husband of three years. In a court-filed financial statement, she listed her monthly expenses as $16,583, and her income as $2,253.

But much of Baker's background is hard to track down. She has a long list of accomplishments on her campaign website, though many were not immediately verifiable.

She says she was a radio host on the AM station WBGR, but she doesn't say when. She also says she received an "MBA at CTU" in 2010, but doesn't clarify what CTU is. She says she is a "Master Barber Member: 2007-2010," though she doesn't have an active barber's license, according to online records from the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

And one of her campaign handouts from the primary election, provided by Baylor-Thompson, says "Re-elect Ramona Moore Baker Judge of the Orphans Court Candidate Baltimore City," though she's never been an elected judge.

"It was very difficult campaigning because we can't challenge her credentials," Baylor-Thompson said, "and I felt that some of what she was saying to the public wasn't true."

In 1998, Baker ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore's register of wills, which acts as the Orphans' Court clerk, as "L. Ramona Moore," according to election records.

In 2002, she tried again as "Ramona Moore."

In 2006, she ran for Orphans' Court judge as "Ramona Baker-Moore," but never made it past the primary. She was elected to the Democratic Central Committee for the 41st District that year, however. And she was re-elected to that position this year.

In 2007, she was a write-in candidate for City Council as "Ramona Moore Baker."

And in 2010 — the year former Orphans' Court Judge Karen C. Friedman was promoted to city District Court, leaving an opening on the probate court — she secured a Democratic Party nomination for Orphans' Court judge as Ramona Baker-Moore.

There was no Republican challenger, so the only three names on the ballot were voted the winners, including Baker and sitting judges Baylor-Thompson and Lewyn Scott Garrett.

Neil Vicks, who has known Baker since 2006, when they were running for the Central Committee, said he thinks the lawyer requirement for Baltimore Orphan's court doesn't make sense — particularly when applied retroactively. Baker met the qualifications during the primary, he said, and she earned the position.

Baylor-Thompson has been lobbying for the lawyer requirement for at least a decade and trying to keep Baker off the court since she first ran in 2006.

"It's not against her, it's the fact that she's not an attorney," Baylor-Thompson said. "It deals with the integrity of the court."

Baylor-Thompson says the work is very technical and requires a broad knowledge of the law. Having a nonlawyer on the bench "would certainly clog up the dockets," Baylor-Thompson said, "because Ms. Baker Moore or Moore Baker cannot do any act on this court without the assistance of another judge."

In her campaign literature, Baker disputes that.

"The background for the Judge of the Orphans Court should be in Business, Accounting, or Finance," she wrote.

She urged residents to vote against the constitutional amendment online and on her voicemail, referring to it by its legislative bill number. "Vote against House Bill 417," she said, "so that more Baltimoreans can win the office of Judge of Orphans' Court. … I need you to vote against House Bill 417 so that I can be sworn in."

But nearly 1.3 million Marylanders — 83 percent of voters — chose to pass the amendment, even though it only affects Orphans' Court judges in the city.

Meanwhile, 102,573 Baltimore city residents also voted for Baker to become a judge.

Now, Baylor-Thompson says she plans to send letters to the governor's office, as well as Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway, who has the job of swearing in new Orphans' Court judges.

But, in an interview, Conaway said he intends to see Baker takes the position.

"She's been duly elected, the same as I have, and I want to be sworn in, so I want to see her sworn in. The people have spoken," he said, adding that she will likely pursue the matter as high as she can if prevented from taking office.

"If she's not allowed to be seated, she will file in court," Conaway said. "She will go beyond the Court of Appeals."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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