What Does The Orphans’ Court Do? And Other Down-Ballot Explanations

Jun 12, 2014

Voters in line at Praisner Community Recreation Center in Montgomery County 2012.
Credit dan reed! via flickr

We’re getting down to the wire. The primary election is June 24th. It’s tough to avoid the billboards, commercials, and mailers for the gubernatorial and county executive races.

But if you’ve taken a peek at your proofing ballot, you know there are a few other votes to cast. Judge of the Orphans’ Court? Register of Wills? What do THEY do? Here’s a primer on some lesser-known offices.

County Races

Orphans’ Court Judges—4 year term, no term limits

Despite the name, Maryland’s Orphans’ Courts spend most of their time dealing with property disputes, not parenting ones. The Orphans’ Court is a probate court, used to settle wills and estates. The judges decide what happens to property held in the sole name of a decedent—a person who has died—regardless of whether they have a will.

The Orphans’ Court was established in 1777. Three judges serve in each of Maryland’s counties and Baltimore City.

Only Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Prince George’s County require their Orphans’ Court judges to be lawyers. In Harford and Montgomery counties, Circuit Court judges, who also are elected, serve as Orphans’ Court judges.

Voters statewide approved a Constitutional amendment in 2010 requiring Baltimore City Orphans’ Court judges to be lawyers. That same year, city voters elected Ramona Moore Baker, a lay person, to the judgeship. She was not sworn into office, however, on the advice of Attorney General Doug Gansler.

Register of Wills—4 year term, no term limits

Each county, and Baltimore City, has a Register of Wills. The register serves as clerk to the Orphans’ Court. Like most of the Orphans’ Court judges, the register does not need to be a lawyer. Also like the Orphans’ Court, the register is a partisan office, although some believe that party affiliation doesn’t make a difference in how the job is done and have questioned why the office isn’t an appointed position.

While Orphans’ Court is the judicial side of the probate process, the Register of Wills is the administrative side. The register oversees the execution of wills, appoints representatives to distribute assets, maintains a record of proceedings, and collects fees and taxes.

State’s Attorney—4 year term, no term limits

The website for the Office of the Attorney General explains the difference between an attorney general and a state’s attorney:

The Attorney General is the legal counsel for the State of Maryland. In comparison, State's Attorneys represent each county and Baltimore City and they are responsible for prosecuting crimes against persons and non-state entities…In Maryland, State's Attorneys are independently elected officials and do not come under the authority or supervision of the Attorney General. The decision to prosecute a criminal case or not, lies within the sound discretion of the State's Attorney.

A state’s attorney represents the state in criminal cases at the District and Circuit Court level. If there is an appeal, then the case passes to the Office of Attorney General.

Check out the Maryland State’s Attorney Association website for more information. WYPR’s P. Kenneth Burns has this report on Baltimore City’s Democratic primary for State’s Attorney.

Sheriff—4 year term, no term limits

According to the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, the first sheriff’s office in the country was established in 1634 in St. Mary’s County.

The sheriff’s office can provide a variety of law enforcement services. Typically, sheriffs have jurisdiction over an entire county, while police departments typically have jurisdiction over cities. Their duties may include executing arrest warrants, serving court documents, maintaining court security, and transporting prisoners. The amount of responsibility for sheriff’s offices varies across the state. In Kent County, the sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency because there isn’t a county police force.

This Delmarva Now article about a shooting last year traces how the Salisbury Police Department and Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office determine who has jurisdiction over a case.

Clerk of the Circuit Court—4 year term, no term limits

Each county and Baltimore City elects a clerk of the Circuit Court.

As the Queen Anne’s County Clerk’s Office explains, the clerk is responsible for administering oaths of office, issuing licenses, performing civil marriage ceremonies, and processing legal documents. This map links to all of the Circuit Courts in Maryland.

Central Committee Members—4 year term, no term limits

These are elections within the Democratic and Republican parties.  Each party has different qualification requirements for candidates.

Brian Griffiths, co-founder of Red Maryland, a conservative blog, listed some of the responsibilities of Republican central committee members in a piece for The Baltimore Sun:

  •  “Pursuant to the Maryland Constitution, submit a name to the governor to fill vacancies in the General Assembly;
  • Recruit and train candidates for office
  • Fundraise, including organizing the yearly Lincoln Day event;
  • Outreach to the community
  • Coordinate election year activities;
  • Advertising and promotion of Republican candidates and issues;
  • Attending two state party conventions every year.”

And an old (statewide) favorite…

Comptroller – 4 year term, no term limits

The comptroller is the chief financial officer of the state. The position was established in 1851 as a balance against the power of the state treasurer. The comptroller collects taxes, distributes revenue, pays state bills, and countersigns checks drawn by the treasury, among other duties.

And how do you say it? The comptroller’s website says there’s about a 50-50 split on the pronunciation, but slightly more people pronounce the “p.”