October 4, 2010

What in the heck do clerks of the court and register of wills do and why are we still electing them?

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman was introducing Democratic candidates around the room at a fundraiser for a House of Delegates candidate last month when he spied Byron MacFarlane.

He’s running for register of wills, Ulman said. “You can ask him what they do.”

What indeed does a register of wills or a clerk of a court do and why are Maryland voters still electing them in party elections?

The only thing political about these offices is the partisan election that gets candidates elected to four-year terms. The rest of the time, registers of wills and clerks of courts are doing specialized full-time administrative jobs in the judicial branch of government.

“I am probably the least political person you would know,” said Kathy Smith, the Calvert County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

However, Smith – the Democrat on the Calvert County ballot – is busy being political outside of the courthouse. After serving 12 years as the court’s clerk, Smith, who was the appointed deputy clerk prior to her election, is campaigning for another four years against Republican Peggy Jean O’Donnell.

About half the incumbent clerks and registers are being challenged for their positions this year.

Many states have appointed clerks of court and positions equivalent to register of wills. Maryland’s constitution, however, specifies that people holding these offices are elected to four-year terms. Additionally, the races are partisan – meaning that candidates who are Republicans and Democrats are vying for a position where party ideology means next to nothing.  Baltimore County Register of Wills Grace Connolly – until last month, the president of their state association – said that many constituents aren’t sure why she has to be reelected every four years.

Still, several people in these positions think that electing these position is still the best way. Lauren Parker, the Anne Arundel County register of wills, prefers the election system because it ensures that people receive the best services.

“But would it be easier on me if it were appointed? You bet,” Parker said.
What they do

Both the clerk of court and register of wills are positions that have existed for centuries. Not many people know exactly what they do.

The register of wills handles administrative duties dealing with estates and heirs. The office appoints representatives to make sure that a deceased person’s property passes to others, assists in legal paperwork dealing with wills and probate, collects inheritance taxes, keeps records of wills and probate documents – both for the living and the deceased, and does clerking duties for the judges of the Orphans’ Court — also an elected, partisan position.

The clerk of court handles administrative duties for each county’s Circuit Court. The office maintains records of criminal, civil, and juvenile cases, as well as land transactions. Clerks also issue business and marriage licenses, and administer oaths to some local officials.

Both jobs pay annual salaries of up to $98,500, depending on the volume of paperwork that flows through the office.

According to the state constitution, the only thing that disqualifies someone from holding either position is a criminal record. However, Parker – a managing partner in a law firm that did a lot of estate work before her election four years ago – said that the job is not something that anyone off the street can do.

“If you’re not familiar with what you’re walking into, this job can be really difficult,” Parker said. “You have to make a lot of calls on things. There is a lot of reading of the law, reading of the tax code, reading the definitions of the writing of wills.”
Should they be elected?

Every four years, Kathy Smith in Calvert County has a difficult time coming up with her re-election campaign.

“It’s a service position,” she said. “I don’t have any policy to share as my accomplishments. What I do is implement policy. I don’t really have much of a ‘message.’”

Other clerks and registers of wills expressed the same problem. Most of the time, they said, they campaign by highlighting their records and expertise.

Sometimes, candidates have no idea what they are getting into. Harry Hopkins, who has been Harford County’s register of wills for 24 years and is retiring this year, said that he has had opponents who just wanted a part-time job. Hopkins said people like that should not be running for the position; the register of wills deals with residents who have lost a loved one and need compassion. Besides, he said, the job is full-time.

Most states have elected clerks of court, said Greg Hurley, a knowledge management analyst for the National Center for State Courts. In other states, chief judges appoint them or hire them like applicants to a traditional job. Most states don’t change the way clerks are selected, and prefer what was done historically, Hurley said.

Register of wills is a position that exists in only a few states — Pennsylvania and Delaware among them.

Some people who hold these courthouse jobs can’t conceive of them as appointed. Howard County Clerk of Courts Margaret Rappaport said that the current system is the way it should be done. Hopkins agreed.

“If it’s appointed, party officials will say, ‘This person is a good affiliate. Let’s put him in here,’” Hopkins said.

Smith said that when the clerk of court is elected, what he or she says carries more weight. And with the state’s court administration still growing and changing, it is beneficial for clerks who actually must answer to the people to have input into where the judicial system goes. Also, she said, the higher officers in the state judiciary can use the elected clerks to spread what is going on back to their constituents.

However, Connolly is not convinced that these positions need to be elected – or political at all with partisan races. The job is responsible for vital governing functions, and experience is key. Things like family name recognition sometimes resonate with voters – not always a bad thing when a candidate is running for a political position, but not always a good thing when the position is administrative and technical.

“I just want somebody who’s experienced,” Connolly – who has also been an Orphans’ Court judge. “If the position was appointed, I would expect the governor to pick someone who has expertise in the right areas.”

If the position stays elective, Connolly said that it should be nonpartisan. No Democrats or Republicans, just candidates.

Hopkins, a Republican, said he was asked to change his political party before an election; he used to be a Democrat. He made the change, was re-elected, and it made no difference in his work.

“When you work with dead people, you don’t let anything interfere with your job.”