Recently “the Bench” (which is what Maryland Divorce Lawyers call Judge’s and their administrative staff) has changed. Maryland divorce cases were structured under the law to be heard (decided) by Circuit Court Judges, by Family Law Masters and by Family Law Examiners.
The type of the Maryland Divorce proceeding and the needs/resources of the various county clerks’ offices determined the type of “judge” you received in a given divorce case. A lawyer in Westminster asked me “which type of judge has the most power?” The answer I give when asked this question is this: imagine Carroll County Court has “commissioned officers” and “non commissioned officers” who dole out directions and orders. It really does not matter because they all outrank us:-)
Examiners are a form of judge who hears uncontested or pro-forma matters. For example, in a divorce that is uncontested, an examiner comes to a lawyer’s office in Marriottsville at the end of the case when all issues are resolved and after the witnesses are sworn by a notary. He asks basic “meat and potatoes” low drama pre-recorded questions for identification.
Those are questions such as “Is this John Doe?” Has he been a resident of Eldersburg for more than 12 months? Have you seen any evidence he has moved back in with his wife???” Once they are all answered, the tape of the questions gets typed into a written transcript. The transcript along with an unsigned divorce judgement gets filed with the Carroll County Clerk and 10 days later they issue a signed Judgment of Divorce. The power of an Examiner flows from his/her ability to collect the necessary information to obtain a divorce without going to court.
Family Law Magistrates (Masters) are Judicial Officers who hear cases and decide cases in the manner that a judge does. There are standing Magistrates (formerly known as Masters) and Special Magistrates who are appointed for one case or one task and serve at the convenience of the court. Often for a single case. The standing Magistrates have a docket and a courtroom in the Circuit Court in Westminster.
Magistrates can decide any domestic cases except contempt (with jail), merits (final) divorce or custody cases or protective orders. In all the matters they can hear from pendente-lite divorce issues, to child support and alimony, they have the same powers as a judge with one caveat
If a Magistrate makes a decision (called a recommendation) it does not take effect for ten (10) days, or unless the parties agree to follow the decision or if the Magistrate invokes his/her power to make an emergency order under 9-208.
Thus a Magistrate makes a bifurcated decision sometimes. Step one, he/she makes the best decision possible and makes a record of his/her decision. Step two, if the Magistrate believes harm may occur or that extraordinary circumstances exist to give his recommendations immediate force he/she states so and “makes a 9-208” finding elevating the Magistrate’s recommendation to the force of an Order as though it came from a judge.
For example, if one spouse cannot pay his/her utilities in her Union Bridge apartment and the Magistrate orders payment, that could constitute an emergency and an immediate order. Barring that, the parties have 10 days to file exceptions (like an appeal) of the Magistrates decision.
Tim Conlon Esquire at
322 West Patrick St, #101 Frederick Maryland 21701