It’s a safe bet that after Lee DeLoach concludes his 30-year tenure as Bulloch County Probate Court judge this December, whoever replaces him will not do all the things DeLoach has done.
Both time and DeLoach himself have changed the office. The fact that his successors will run nonpartisan, instead of as Democrats or Republicans, resulted from a push he made roughly 20 years ago. Bulloch County’s probate judge no longer handles elections, after the county commissioners created a separate Board of Elections at his request in 2009. Almost one year ago, DeLoach stopped officiating at weddings, but his office still issues the required wedding licenses, now to same-sex as well as traditional couples.
Through it all, and after a near doubling of Bulloch County’s population and a shift from all-paper records to mostly digital, the core responsibilities of the court remain the same, DeLoach said. This week, at age 68, he announced he will not seek re-election, and will retire Dec. 31. At 30 years plus one month, he will be the second longest serving of the 19 Court of the Ordinary and Probate Court judges who have served Bulloch County since 1795.
“I just believe that it’s time. You know, I’ve enjoyed it and I really am grateful for the time that I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve had good experiences here and I hope that I’ve fulfilled my responsibility. I think I have, and you know, you just sort of know that it’s time and I think 30 years is long enough.”
So this master record keeper is not going for the seniority record that one more term would supply. Ely Kennedy was Bulloch County ordinary for 31 years, from 1810 until 1841.
“While I’m still in good health and have other things that I’d like to do, I want to have time to do them, and that includes family, friends and travel,” DeLoach said.
He wants to take a couple of cruises and see more of the USA with Sharon, his wife of almost 46 years.
A Bulloch County native with a Georgia Southern College degree in physical education and math, DeLoach first taught those subjects and coached at local schools. He started in real estate while teaching and then for several years worked as a real estate broker, gaining some knowledge of the courthouse and its records.
Changes he’s seen
When DeLoach took office in December 1986, he and one clerk were the entire Probate Court staff. Now there are four clerks, and the court’s offices and small courtroom occupy the entire ground floor of the courthouse.
From 1997 until 2000, the Probate Court office moved out of the Bulloch County Courthouse to the old Statesboro City Hall during extensive courthouse renovations. DeLoach said he is proud to have had a hand in planning a very functional continued life for the historic building.
Before the creation of the Elections Board seven years ago, DeLoach supervised elections in the county. After the commissioners approved the change. Patricia Lanier Jones, who was then chief Probate Court clerk, was hired as election supervisor and remains in that post.
“With the probate load and county population, both jobs really are full-time jobs, and we either had to double our staff or create an election board,” DeLoach said.
Weddings have provided DeLoach some of his more colorful memories. He has officiated at a wedding on a combine in a field, and at another in a place called the Red Dog Saloon – really a private barn, he said.
But DeLoach compiled a list of ministers who would conduct weddings for people who do not already have someone to officiate, and stopped conducting weddings himself in March 2015. State law only says that probate judges “may” conduct weddings, not that they shall, and other judges can also conduct weddings, he noted.
His decision to stop officiating didn’t really have anything to do with the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, DeLoach said. His office issues wedding licenses to all couples who can legally marry.
“It’s not my place to make a decision one way or the other,” he said. “I don’t have any jurisdiction over that. I just follow the law.”
But probate judges in neighboring counties had stopped doing weddings. So people from other counties were coming to the Bulloch County Courthouse to marry, he said.
At the point when DeLoach made his decision to stop, he was conducting often four or five weddings a week, and sometimes 10 or 12, he said. Although joyous occasions, weddings were disruptive to the other services of the court, DeLoach said.
Probating wills and other matters having to do with estates are the heart of those services. The office also handles petitions for guardianships and conservatorships, besides issuing handgun carry permits, marriage licenses, peddlers’ licenses and fireworks display permits. The court holds commitment hearings related to mental illness and substance abuse.
The court’s business has become so complex, DeLoach says, that some experience with the court system seems necessary for the judgeship, despite the training available from the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia and other organizations. He was 1992 state council president and is a member of the Judicial Council of Georgia and the National Judicial College but came to the job in 1986 with just his teaching degree and real estate experience.
Bulloch County now has about 72,000 residents. If it had more than 96,000, the probate judge would have to be an attorney.
“No, I’m not an attorney, but I can’t imagine somebody now coming into this job without some kind of legal experience,” DeLoach said. “I did, but things are different now.”
He tells staff members that their shared responsibilities are always “a work in progress” with room for improvement.
“It is a continuing work in progress, and whoever occupies this office, I would think that it would be the same way,” DeLoach said. “It needs to be a work in progress.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.