The acting Register of Probate, Daphne DeVries, is facing a Democratic primary challenge from Oak Bluffs selectman Gail Barmakian.
DeVries has been coming to the Island since she was very young. Her parents purchased a house in Katama, where she spent summers growing up. After earning a B.S. in biology and genetics, DeVries began work in the interior design business for eight years, four in Washington, D.C., and four in Boston for the same company. She moved to the Island in 1996, and got a temporary position in the probate office, where she has been working ever since. DeVries has been the acting register since June 2017. She moved to Edgartown a year ago, and was living in Oak Bluffs before that.
Barmakian grew up in Belmont, but has been coming to the Island since she was born and her family history on the Island stretches back four generations. After earning a degree in Russian studies and her J.D. from the Massachusetts School of Law, Barmakian moved to the Island permanently in 1998. She has worked as an associate attorney for Kaplan & Nichols P.C. of Edgartown, and has been in solo practice since 2006. Much of her experience in law has focused on civil, family, estate, and probate matters. She has served on several Oak Bluffs town boards, including Library Friends and board of examiners of plumbers and gas fitters, and is currently the chairwoman of the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen, a member of the board of directors for the Center for Living, a member of the Oak Bluffs-Tisbury Lagoon watershed committee, and wastewater commissioner, and is an appointed commissioner on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
Why are you running?
Barmakian: The elected office of Register of Probate combines my passion for public service with my background as a legal practitioner in the Dukes County Probate and Family Court for almost 20 years. Public service has been rewarding for me, and I hope to continue that role as the next elected Register of Probate.
The mission of the Probate and Family Court is to deliver timely justice, equal access, and assistance with impartiality and respect, which begins at the Probate and Family Court Office. The Register of Probate is, in essence, the face of that court, and is responsible for seeing that the duties and responsibilities of the office are carried out. This includes ensuring that paperwork is in order and meets the criteria set out by the rules and policy, managing the efficient flow of cases, prioritizing time-sensitive issues, handling matters that are emotional and troubling with respect and impartiality, and helping to effectuate the just and speedy resolution of family law cases when possible. The jurisdiction of the court is broad, and doesn’t only address the probate of estates, divorces, and child-related issues. It includes the real issues we see today: providing for elders who can no longer care for themselves; providing for the children of parents who cannot manage them, providing for unmarried couples, and the issues of their children when the parents cannot agree; providing for estates for those who have passed away and the aftermath, providing for real estate matters when the owners cannot agree, and consideration of the law as it addresses domestic violence here in our community and throughout the commonwealth. As an attorney who practices in the court and represents members of the community struggling with these issues, and an elected public official who is faced with addressing these problems, I believe my qualification are best suited to fulfill the role of Register of Probate.
DeVries: Well, first and foremost, I am running for this office because I love my job. Also, because of my experience, I am best suited to serve the Island community. I was appointed temporary register under MGL c. 217, sec. 13, to fill the vacancy created when Elizabeth J. Herrmann retired. Our First Justice appointed me, the Chief Justice in Boston approved my appointment on June 1, 2017, and it was a seamless transition.
I started working in the office in 1996, and the day I started, I knew it was a perfect fit for me. It was the diversity of the court environment that intrigued me from day one. I was learning so much about procedures and rules, and learning the laws, and every day there was something new that came across my desk. As I learned more and more, I felt like I was truly helping people who were going through difficult times in their lives, simply by listening to them and helping them through what must feel like very daunting procedures as they navigate the court system. I have grown into this position, and it has become what I hope is a lifelong career for me.
What separates you from your opponent?
DeVries: My hands-on experience is what sets me apart from my opponent. I have worked in this office for 21 years, and have proven to the public that I can do the job and I can do it well. The Probate and Family Court has jurisdiction over wills and estates, divorces, annulments, child custody and parenting, child support, adoptions, guardianships, conservatorships, abuse prevention orders, legal name changes, partitions of land, and equity complaints. Nothing compares with having been cross-trained in all of those areas. Because of my experience, I have the knowledge and social skills that are essential for assisting the public. I have effective and respectful working relationships with the members of the Dukes bar association, the Superior and District Court offices, the Dukes County Registry of Deeds office, the Probate and Family Court administrative office, the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department, M.V. Community Services and our First Justice, to name a few, all of whom I work with on a regular basis.
Barmakian: Contrasted with my opponent, I am an attorney who has practiced law and represented people on their personal matters in the Dukes County Probate and Family Court for close to 20 years. In addition, I have seen the needs and served in the public sector in many capacities as an elected and appointed official at the local and state level. I would bring my professional legal background, experience, and passion for and a track record of public service to the position of Register of Probate. I also know the people in my community — their problems and their needs. I know what is needed to efficiently work within and run a court with limited resources, what it’s like to be on an Island overlooked by the trial court on the mainland, and the need to constantly reach out to our elected officials, trial court officials, and registers in other counties to both advocate for resources such as space, capital, and personnel, as well as the prompt access to keep up to date in current methods and practices such as mediation programs, technology for more efficient case management, and website access to assist those having to navigate the probate court system.
One does not learn how to interpret the law without practicing and interpreting the rules of procedure, the probate code, and case law, which further define the processing of cases which go through the Probate and Family Court and are an integral part of the ultimate responsibility of the Register of Probate. The role is much like the Clerks of the Superior Court and District Court who are both attorneys and serve in a similar capacity in their courts.
Looking ahead, how can Probate Court better serve Martha’s Vineyard?
Barmakian: Simply by providing and improving the public’s access to justice and services. As a legal practitioner who experiences the challenges of practicing in a court with limited staff, including lack of case manager and legal clerks, I have firsthand knowledge how the court can better serve the people of Dukes County and other members of the public, and will be committed to ensuring it happens. If I am elected, the office will resume a staff of two employees and the elected register. One employee will be lost should the acting temporary register be elected, due to a state hiring freeze. Differing from current practice, I would ensure that the Probate office will be open to the public during all hours the courthouse is open. Being available and present is a priority. I will work with the staff and judge to develop and implement policies so that we can better handle matters in a way that is seamless for the individuals and families who need our services and their attorneys; I would like to develop a website to give an overview of the court, answer questions that are commonly asked, and help the public navigate the court system, much like Plymouth County Probate and Family Court; I will pay close attention to case management and prioritize those cases that are time-sensitive; I will perform the duties and responsibilities of the office with a combination of professionalism and kindness, while treating those looking for direction and assistance with dignity, as many are facing hard and sudden choices.
DeVries: Looking forward, I plan on advocating for E-filing and a paperless future, having scanned images from specific case files available to the public and attorneys and a lawyer for the day program. Otherwise, we will keep on doing what we do best, serving the public.