Disorder in the Courts
Some courthouse races may be obscure, but they're rarely dull
Published: September 8, 2010
Chief Judge Joyce M. Baylor-Thompson says it would not be accurate to say that HB 417, proposing an amendment to Maryland’s State Constitution and up for a vote this November, is the anti-Ramona Moore Baker amendment.
But then again, she and her two colleagues who serve as judges of the Baltimore City Orphans’ Court have been working on similar measures requiring that Orphans’ Court judges be bonafide members of the bar, for four years—since the last time Baker ran for judge (“Death Match,” Campaign Beat, Aug. 23, 2006). “We have been talking about this for a while,” Baylor-Thompson says. “Baltimore traditionally had no problem. A lot of people just thought you were required to be a lawyer.”
The 2010 Baltimore City Courthouse races—down-ticket events that seldom attract the attention afforded to higher profile races such as state’s attorney, mayor, or even state delegate—are a cauldron of controversy. Besides Baker, there is Deanna Lee Hiltz, another non-lawyer who is running to avenge the $100,000 loss she says she suffered at the hands of Orphans Court Judge Karen Friedman.
“We got palm-tree justice up there. It’s like a kangaroo court,” Hiltz says of the case she argued, over five and a half years, involving her mother’s estate.
And then there’s Sarah L. Matthews, who is running to replace Circuit Court Clerk Frank Conaway. “I was sexually harassed by him. I was asked to prepare his children’s campaign-finance reports. I was told not to hire any Caucasian people,” Matthews says. “So I ended up quitting because that was not an atmosphere that I wanted to work in.”
Since arriving in Baltimore from the South Side of Chicago in the late 1980s, Matthews has run for office several times unsuccessfully while establishing herself as a neighborhood activist in Bolton Hill. She says she left a job at the Baltimore Department of Social Services to head human resources for Conaway’s approximately 320-person office in the spring of 2008. She was placed on the usual six-month probationary period, and dismissed after that for unsatisfactory performance.
Matthews alleges that the 77-year-old Conaway put his hands on her breasts and buttocks on several occasions and made lewd comments, both in person and over the phone, allegations which led to a hearing on the matter in late 2008.
“She’s crazy,” Conaway counters. “She had to make that allegation in order to get a hearing. If you don’t make probation there’s really no appeal unless your constitutional rights were violated.” He offers to show a reporter proof—encased in Matthews’ personnel file—that she did not repeat her initial harassment allegation during the hearing. But in his office later, Conaway says he’s been advised by lawyers that the files are not public.
“The first allegation was that she wouldn’t have sex with me,” Conaway says. “The hearing was that I groped her—nothing about I asked for sex. When asked about the [alleged] sexual harassment, she had no statement.”
Conaway wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Matthews after she was fired in September 2008. Matthews acknowledges that her allegations were not sustained by the hearing officer, but says she withdrew them because Conaway promised her another job—which she ended up turning down as well.
That couldn’t have happened, Conaway says: “Once she was terminated for cause, I couldn’t have gotten her another job.”
Although their competing versions of the story agree on little, they both suggest tight personal and political relationships among people working in the courthouse. Conaway says Matthews asked to borrow $2,000 from him for the closing on her house, which he refused. He also says that he knew Matthews because he had given her $850 to put his son, Del. Frank Conaway Jr. (D-40th District), on her political ticket in 2006. “I didn’t really check to see if he was on the ticket,” Conaway says. “I just assume people are honest.”
Conaway’s other challenger, William Allen, last held the position in 1981, when he was forced to resign amid a state investigation. He could not be reached for comment.
About the only quiet race is the contest for Register of Wills, an office held for 28 years by Conaway’s wife, Mary Conaway. Political junkies might recall her opponent’s name from the 2007 4th District City Council primary race, in which he finished eighth in a field of nine, with 105 votes. Neil R. Bernstein says he would improve customer service in the Register’s office and implement some state auditors’ recommendations. “There have been problems in the past . . . not to say they were improprieties, not at all,” says Bernstein, who is retired but claims years of financial experience with the state supplemental retirement plan.
“That stuff has already been implemented,” Mary Conaway says. “Every audit we have, anything they suggest that we do, that’s what we do. So I don’t know what is left to implement.”
The Orphans’ Court Judge race looks to be the most intriguing. Three incumbent judges—Baylor-Thompson, Friedman, and Lewyn Scott Garrett—are running as a slate. But Friedman took a promotion to District Court judge on Aug. 23, so if she is reelected to the Orphans’ Court, she cannot serve.
“They think they’re gonna get away with this—she can’t be on the ballot,” Hiltz says. “I didn’t bust my ass, going out there [campaigning] in 100 degree weather . . . and we’re gonna get the back door slammed on us?”
Baylor-Thompson says the scenario is very legal. “What happened there was at the time [Friedman] got the appointment it was too late to take her name off the ballot,” she says. “So we’re asking voters to vote for all three of us so that the governor can appoint someone to fill her seat.”
Baylor-Thompson says if the voters reelect the incumbents, they will get only Baylor-Thompson, Garrett, and a player to be appointed later. If either Baker or Hiltz is elected, however, those candidates say they will become judges, even if the voters also pass the constitutional amendment, which would make non-lawyers ineligible to become Orphans’ Court judges in Baltimore City. “Quite naturally, if I’m already in, then I’m in, so it won’t affect me,” Baker says.
But Baylor-Thompson says she has an opinion from Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler’s office saying that, in the event the non-lawyers are elected and the voters pass the constitutional amendment, they would not be seated as Orphans’ Court judges. She said she would fax City Paper a copy of that opinion, but did not do so before deadline.
Baylor-Thompson says if either challenger is elected it would affect the court, because they are not qualified to write memoranda of law or interpret the law. Echoing claims made four years ago, Baylor-Thompson says that it would lead to a backlog of cases.
Baker says that, in her work as a mediator in the Circuit Court, “I do the same thing that they do—I’m just not behind the bench. If I come up with the same solution as they come up with, I obviously know what’s going on.”
Concerns of a case backlog are overblown, Baker contends, because most cases are postponed when litigants fail to show up. “Then they go home for the day,” she says of the judges.
Hiltz has a similar concern: “Those judges work two days a week for $69,500 [a year].”
Baker has little patience for her fellow non-attorney challenger. Hiltz, she says, lost in court “because the law was against her,” then appealed to the Circuit Court, where Judge John M. Prevas affirmed the Orphans’ Court decision. Such appeals are common. “You have people fighting over money,” Baker says. “You get people who want their day in court . . . even if the law isn’t on their side, they appeal it.”
Their day in court, and their day at the polls.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.