To be determined in Tuesday night’s vote count, the race between challenger Michael J. Classens and incumbent Judge Joseph Cushner to be judge of the Bulloch County State Court for the next four years is officially nonpartisan, but still politically contentious.
It offers two lawyers with quite different sets of qualifications.
Cushner has not been elected to the judge’s role, but he was appointed to it by Gov. Brian Kemp effective March 2020 following the 2019 retirement of Judge Gary Mikell. Cushner had served a little over three years as solicitor-general, the prosecutor for the misdemeanor criminal cases handled by the State Court, after being elected unopposed in 2016. Before that, he served more than six years as an Ogeechee Judicial Circuit assistant district attorney.
Classens has never been a judge, but as a general-practice attorney based in Statesboro for 37 years, he has represented clients in courts at municipal, state, superior, appellate and federal levels, especially in criminal defense and civil litigation. He previously served as a Georgia Southern University assistant professor of criminal justice and speaks proudly of “real world” experience in different jobs going back to high school.
This week, the newspaper initially asked both Cushner and Classens one question:
Herald: What do you hope is the decisive issue for voters in choosing between you and (the other candidate) for Bulloch County State Court judge?
Classens: “I hope Bulloch County's voters choose their State Court judge based on which candidate has actually earned their trust and respect while gaining experience as a lawyer engaged in a wide-ranging, general practice of law. I have been privileged that, for so many years, so many citizens have placed their faith in me when they have a legal issue facing them. Whether in civil litigation or criminal defense, my goal has always been to protect the legal rights available to everyone in our society.”
That, he said, has provided him “actual, hands-on experience dealing with the day-in, day-out issues that regularly come into State Court.”
Cushner: “To be effective, a judge must be trusted by the citizens to make the right decisions. I am the only candidate who has the experience of being a judge, and a proven track record of making those decisions. My record as both a prosecutor and as a judge demonstrates that I have the ability to balance justice and fairness, ensuring that Bulloch County stays safe while considering the circumstances of each case.”
Herald: The reporter had suggested a word limit, and Cushner submitted a briefer answer. Classens submitted a longer answer. The reporter then suggested that Cushner might expand his answer related to his experience and gave him an opportunity to respond to one comment Classens made.
What follows is taken from their responses and another statement Classens made in anticipation of Cushner’s reply. It was all done by email.
Classens: “Likewise, my work experience outside of the legal profession is relevant, in that I understand the circumstances facing these citizens, because I have faced them myself.
"’Real world’ experience doesn't come from classrooms and lecture halls, it comes from living and working in a community, earning a living that depends on your production at work, and facing life's dilemmas on a daily basis.”
From working in construction and building materials and retail sales and teaching at Georgia Southern for seven years, Classens “learned more about the important things in life than can fit into a textbook,” he said.
Cushner: “As solicitor-general, I prosecuted over 15,000 cases, with each one making the singular choice of how to best deliver justice to the victims of crime and how to hold accountable those who appear there charged with violating the law.
“As judge, I have had to make hundreds of those decisions in both criminal and civil cases. This experience and proven track record are only a few of the reasons why I have the trust and support of prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, civil attorneys, and the business leaders of Bulloch County.”
Now, an election
Classens: “I want the people of Bulloch County to elect their State Court judge on their own, rather than to have a judge receive an appointment based on political patronage. This was my intention in 2020, when I announced my plan to qualify for this seat on the Wednesday immediately before qualifying. Later that same week, before a single citizen had the opportunity to make the choice, their right to vote was taken away by the appointment of the incumbent.”
Herald: After several local attorneys applied to the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission seeking to fill the vacancy created by Mikell’s retirement, the commission recommended three candidates to Kemp in early August 2019. Cushner was one of them. Originally, this was expected, locally, to be short-term appointment.
But the governor waited until mid-February 2020 to announce Cushner’s appointment. Because of a deadline in state law for the appointment of judges in relation to the timing of elections, this forestalled a spring 2020 special election.
The reporter informed Cushner that Classens had referred to his appointment as “based on political patronage” and informed Classens that this was done.
Cushner: “After Judge Mikell retired, both my opponent and I applied to become judge. The bi-partisan Judicial Nominating Committee is tasked with submitting a list of qualified candidates to the governor for consideration. After reviewing our applications and an in-person interview, my application was forwarded to Governor Kemp and my opponent's was not. Governor Kemp thoroughly vetted the candidates, and after an interview with the governor, I had the honor of being appointed and sworn in as Judge of State Court.”
Classens: “The JNC (at least in 2019) is overwhelmingly made up of lawyers who were counsel to the governor (Deal, Perdue, or Kemp) or worked for ‘Kemp for Governor,’ or who are general counsel for hardware stores, colleges, city attorneys, lobbyists, election law specialists, or Republican legislators, prosecutors and judges, usually appointed to those positions by a (governor).
“Their ‘vetting’ process extends no further than to learn one's political party membership,” he said.
Cushner graduated from Statesboro High School in 2003 and went to the University of Georgia for both college and law school. His first job when he returned to Bulloch was assistant district attorney, prosecuting felony cases.
Classens graduated from Statesboro High in 1973 as Bulloch County STAR student. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southern and his law degree from the University of Tennessee. He worked at Smith Supply Company from one week after high school graduation until he left for law school.
Classens: “As a Bulloch Countian, I have learned that we respect and appreciate folks who have earned their way through life on their own merits. My hope is that this election will provide another example of that ethic, and that we will elect the one candidate who has earned the privilege through hard work and dedication.”
Cushner: “Had the governor decided not to make an appointment, I would have gladly run for judge in 2020. It was and remains important to me to build on successes that Judge Mikell and I had together to ensure that Bulloch County continues to have one of the best State Courts in Georgia.”
Many voters have already decided, since in-person advanced voting concluded at 5 p.m. Friday. Now, for registered voters who have not already cast their ballots, Bulloch County’s 16 traditional voting precincts will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 24.