A long list of challenges await the Honorable Theresa A. Lawler, an eight-year veteran of Baltimore County’s Orphans’ Court who now heads Maryland’s Conference of Orphans’ Court Judges (COCJ), and the biggest may be removing the cloak of mystique that has surrounded this fifth tier of Maryland’s judiciary for the last 232 years. The Orphans’ Court (OC) fulfills a unique niche in Maryland’s court system as the state’s probate court, yet it is virtually unknown to most Marylanders.
Thus, elevating its visibility is one of Lawler’s priorities as the new Chair of COCJ, the diverse group of 14 OC judges who serve as an advisory board to Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Maryland Court of Appeals, in issues relating to the OC. Her other top priority is “education, education, education” for OC judges, attorneys and the general public. Lawler, who assumed the helm of COCJ in June, wants enhanced CLE for OC judges plus basic education for the many attorneys - and virtually the entire public - who know very little about the OC.
“Orphans’ Court judges sometimes feel we are the ‘orphans’ of the judiciary,” states Lawler. “We are perhaps the most misunderstood, by the residents of the state and even some attorneys.” Thus, education dovetails into her plan of raising awareness about the Orphans’ Court on all fronts, including voters, as OC judges must endure partisan contested elections every four years.
Maryland Orphans’ Court judges are responsible for the administration of decedents’ estates, hear contested issues involving the transfer of property and the validity of wills and supervise judicially probated estates. They meet with people involved in estate and probate matters and walk them through the estate process, explaining probate, the orderly transfer of property from one person to another, in basic terms to help them understand it. (See Maryland Bar Journal, Vol. XLII, Number 4, pg. 38).
Today, three Orphans’ Court judges sit in 21 counties across Maryland and in Baltimore City. The exceptions are Harford and Montgomery Counties, where the circuit court judges sit as Orphans’ Court judges. But many of these judges are not lawyers. Maryland’s Constitution requires all Orphans Court judges to be Maryland citizens and residents of the jurisdiction in which they are elected for 12 months prior to their election. It does not require them to be lawyers.
HON. THERESA A. LAWLER
Chair, Maryland Conference of Orphans' Court Judges
“There generally is little publicity about OC elections or about the candidates who are running for a seat,” states Lawler. “Most voters do not know what OC judges do, and most have little or no information as to the educational training or background of the people running. It is probably fair to say that most people assume we are lawyers.”
“Some attorneys do not really understand what it is we do, either,” she adds. Many seem surprised that this Court renders such prompt decisions. “It may be fair to say that even some people who run for a seat on the OC may not understand the responsibilities that such a position entails.”
As COCJ’s leader, Lawler hopes to launch a three-pronged public education campaign. First, she wants to introduce an orientation program for new OC judges and foster greater CLE opportunities. “We need to understand the legal issues,” she notes. Second, Lawler wants to educate attorneys about the OC and, third, she would like to educate the public, the voters, to not only understand what the Court is but understand “the credentials of the judges.”
Lawler wants to explore OC’s selection process, too. “There is no baseline education required for OC judges, nor is there a selection or screening process,” she explains. Over the years, legislation requiring OC judges to be lawyers has failed. In 2007, a bill to require OC judges to have a law degree was withdrawn and, in 2008, legislation calling for a Constitutional Amendment allowing each jurisdiction to determine the educational requirements for its OC judges passed the Senate but failed in the House of Delegates by one vote.
In 2009, legislation allowing OC judges who are members of the Bar to appoint guardians of the person of minors passed both houses and was signed into law by Governor O’Malley. OC judges already had jurisdiction to appoint Guardians of the property of minors, but this law expands the jurisdiction to include guardianships of the person as well as property of minors.
Training for OC judges and the development of “consistent uniform standards and uniform administration” are also on the agenda. “You have different results on the same issues in different jurisdictions because there is a lack of knowledge of applicable statutes – but there is only one estate and trust section,” Lawler asserts. “Security issues, locations, deputies and budgets, along with enhanced skills” are all challenges that face the OC.
Lawler has a full plate this year, but she is happy to pursue this agenda because she is a true champion on the OC. “I believe the OC serves a very important function in the overall structure of Maryland’s judiciary. We supervise the administration of estates, and our decisions have a significant impact on the people who appear before us. Additionally, I believe most OC judges are very conscientious, work hard to render good decisions, assist the people that appear before us and do a very good job.”