Feisty NonLawyer Challenges Incumbent Orphans Court Judges
"You do not have to be an attorney to be a judge of the Orphans Court," proclaims Laudette Ramona Baker-Moore over the phone, defending her candidacy to become one of the three-member Baltimore City panel that handles questions over estates, wills, and probates after people die. And she's right. Under Maryland law, Orphans Court judges need only be residents of the jurisdiction where they are running for at least a year.
But incumbent Chief Judge Joyce M. Baylor-Thompson argues that there is a "rich tradition" of lawyers sitting as city Orphans Court judges. She and the other two incumbents--Lewyn Scott Garrett and Karen Friedman--are lawyers, and that's as it should be, Baylor-Thompson says. "I would not have a problem if the person challenging us was an attorney," she explains. "But I'm having a problem--if [Baker-Moore] wins, she cannot sign orders, hear cases, and render decisions by herself. She'd have to have another judge who is a lawyer sit with her to do those things, and that would backlog our work."
Baker-Moore retorts that the job requires legal, administrative, and financial skills, and that "it's a matter of education" as to whether a candidate can handle the tasks. "The bottom line is doing the job," she says. "It doesn't take all that much as we think that it does. The law is already written, you just need to follow it." Baker-Moore's relevant education, according to her web site (www.ramonamoore.com), includes an undergraduate degree in criminal law from Coppin State University and a pre-law program completed last year at Baltimore City Community College. As for her financial skills, a still-unpaid 3-year-old Baltimore City court judgment against her for $2,500 suggests they may not be up to par, at least at a personal level.
"I doubt that she would be able to interpret the laws," Baylor-Thompson says of Baker-Moore. "And our cases sometimes get appealed up [to the appellate courts]. We have to make sure that the law is implemented properly here. And she'd be dealing with attorneys coming before her who are well-versed in this area of law, the gurus, and we have to make sure they're following the law. A judge needs to understand the rules of procedure, the rules of evidence, handle motions. No, the Maryland Code doesn't require us to be attorneys, but it should."
But it doesn't, so Baker-Moore is free to run for the job. In the 1998 and 2002 Democratic primaries, she ran for register of wills--a position that essentially serves as the clerk of the Orphans Court--against longtime incumbent Mary Conaway, the matron of a local political dynasty. Baker-Moore ran as L. Ramona Moore in those contests but has since married and changed her name. She lost by wide margins in both elections, but still attracted more than 6,500 votes in '98 and nearly 11,000 votes in '02. Her ambitions have now switched to judgeship--because Conaway has this "power name," Baker-Moore says, "it is very hard" to gain traction against her at the polls--and so has Baker-Moore's last name. That it now starts with a "B" is significant. Since Baker-Moore's name comes alphabetically before the incumbents' names, she will appear at the top of the ballot, a coveted position, especially in races such as this, for an obscure office filled by little-known incumbents.
The issue of Baker-Moore's name is a touchy one. She insists that she did not tailor her name to gain top-of-the-ballot position in this race, and yet she uses several variations of her name when publicizing her candidacy. Her web site domain uses "Ramona Moore" but urges campaign donations be made out to the "Ramona Baker Campaign." And in a phone message left at City Paper on Aug. 11, she called herself "Ramona Moore Baker." Yet on the ballot, her name will appear as "Baker-Moore, Ramona." She insists there is no confusion arising from this. "Many people in Baltimore know me as Ramona Moore," she says. "But I'm married now, and my last name is Baker."
Baker-Moore's campaign appears misleading in another important way: She is soliciting campaign donations by saying contributors can deduct them off their taxes, which they can't, according to the Internal Revenue Service code. On her web site, the "Contribute" page prompts people to "send your tax-deductible donations to the `Ramona Baker Campaign.'" In fact, federal tax law requires political campaigns to disclose on their fundraising materials that contributions are not tax-deductible, and the fine for offenses is $1,000 per day, up to a maximum of $10,000. By way of explanation, Baker-Moore states that "my understanding in talking to a tax person is that they are [tax-deductible], but if they aren't, I will change that."
Baker-Moore's web site also includes her résumé, but one entry--"Board member for the State of Maryland Master Barber Division"--is misleading. While there is a State Board of Barbers, consisting of seven members who authorize barbers' licenses, Baker-Moore is not one of them. Instead, Baker-Moore is a barber licensed by that board, using yet another variation of her name, "Laudette R. Moore-Baker." She claims that the entry is not misleading because, she says, she served on the Board of Barbers in the mid-1990s. By press time, City Paper was unable to confirm this with state authorities. (It is noteworthy that Baker-Moore would not be listed at the top of the ballot in the Orphans Court race if she used her barber-license name, "Moore-Baker.")
A final wrinkle in this race is that the incumbents have filed a complaint against Baker-Moore with the state Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee about her campaign literature. The committee is "reviewing it now," says Baylor-Thompson, who alleges that Baker-Moore is "sending out fundraising materials signed `Ramona Baker-Moore, Judge of the Orphans Court," a misleading claim for a challenger who is not a judge. To back up her claim, Baylor-Thompson faxed to City Paper three examples of the misleading literature. (Adding further confusion to the issue of her name, some of the literature is addressed to "All of the friends of the Ramona Moore-Baker Team.") The recently formed conduct committee has no authority to issue sanctions but intends to hold candidates to certain campaigning standards.
Baker-Moore defends herself with great passion. "I say, `My name is Ramona Moore, and I am this year's candidate for the judge of the Orphans Court," Baker-Moore says of how she introduces herself to voters. And, indeed, her web site banner reads as much: "Ramona Baker for Baltimore City Judge of the Orphans Court." She had no idea that a complaint had been filed against her and finds the allegation utterly scurrilous, despite the documented evidence. "It is absolutely untrue that I say anything else," she declares loudly over the phone. "They are just putting hot steam out there. They are giving out false information."
The contentiousness of this obscure race is unusual. Baylor-Thompson says she can't recall an election when a nonlawyer challenger won a seat on the Orphans Court bench, and she doesn't want that to happen this year. She's very concerned that Baker-Moore is at the top of the ballot, because "if the people don't know, some people will go one, two, three," and select the top three names out of the four on the ballot. "The integrity of the court is at issue here," Baylor-Thompson says. "The court does not have a backlog, and we don't want one. This is really not about smearing an opponent. I'm really looking at the court and how work would have to be structured so differently if she was elected."
Baker-Moore, though, is confident that she's up to the job. "My being there will enhance what the judges of the court have been doing," she asserts cheerily. "I get things done, I make things happen, and people recognize that. God is in control, and the people know what I have done. Talk to me after the primary, and we'll see that that is so."
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