What would candidates for probate judge debate, anyway? Officially, Tuesday evening’s event was a forum, and the five candidates for judge of the Bulloch County Probate Court mainly discussed their qualifications and what they hope to achieve.
Looming over their discussion, but not present on the stage, was incumbent Judge Lee DeLoach, who plans to retire in December after completing 30 years in office. To review, the candidates to succeed him are attorney Charlie Aaron, paralegal and law firm office manager Lorna DeLoach, Desert Storm and Iraq War veteran Lonnie Ellis, Statesboro police detective Kevin Wadley, and former Statesboro High School principal Dr. Marty Waters. Their comments were actually interspersed among those of two candidates for sheriff and three for Superior Court judge.
In their own words
Aaron: “We’ve had a good Probate Court judge here in the county for almost 30 years, but now he’s retiring. What we need is somebody to be able to be able to step into that position and make a seamless transition into the future, and based upon the fact that I am an attorney, I have practiced for 13 years, I am the candidate that is most qualified to step into that position on day one and make that transition as seamless as it can possibly be.”
Waters: “As a former high school principal, I have had experiences working in school law, resolving disciplinary matters, conflict resolution, guardianship issues and working with the Probate Court, employee training and evaluation for over 150 employees, strategic planning and budgeting. But most importantly, my experiences have brought me into contact with people from almost every walk of life and all diverse backgrounds, and I’ve taken great pleasure in being able to work with those folks in resolving their problems or meeting their needs.”
DeLoach: “I have the experience, the compassion and the desire to educate the citizens about this court. I believe that a non-attorney would make a great judge for this court. I have 33 years of experience as a paralegal. In preparing wills, probates, administrations and handling real estate closings, I have touched over approximately 3,000 estate matters during my career. … But this is not only about experience. The Probate Court is a court for the people, and in dealing with people you must have compassion, you must be a people person.”
Wadley: “If elected, I plan to continue the legacy of the current incumbent, Judge Lee DeLoach. I plan to model myself after him and what he has done for the past 30 years. I plan to continue to serve my community with professionalism, integrity and compassion.” Wadley had described his accomplishments in a law enforcement career that has included more than 18 years with the Statesboro Police Department, and six previous years with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. He has also been deputized by the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office since 2001.
Ellis: “I am not only seeking the office of Probate Court judge, I’m actually still pursuing my dream of becoming a lawyer, while hopefully serving as your judge. … I’m running my campaign on the four pillars of democracy: justice, freedom, equality and representation. I will represent each of you equally, I will ensure that justice is provided, and I will ensure that your freedoms provided by the Constitution of the United States of America are upheld.”
Ellis has a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from South University, is completing a master’s in business, and hopes to go on to law school in a night program.
WTOC Bureau Chief Dal Cannady, as the moderator, had first asked all 10 candidates to introduce themselves. The Statesboro Jaycees hosted the forum in the Ogeechee Technical College Auditorium.
Unlike the two-party sheriff’s race but like the Superior Court judgeship, the probate judgeship is nonpartisan, and so will be decided in the May 24 election or a July 26 runoff.
Attorney or non
With the forum format, the candidates answered questions that had been submitted to the Jaycees beforehand. The closest the probate judge candidates came to debating one another was on a question related to whether Bulloch County needs an attorney as probate judge.
Aaron alone is a licensed attorney. But under Georgia law, a county’s probate judge is required to be an attorney only when the county has more than 90,000 people. Bulloch County currently has a population of around 72,000.
Previously, the Statesboro Herald referred to the requirement as applying to counties with more than 96,000 people, based on Georgia law citation in the online reference justia.com. Other candidates also referred to this number during the forum, but Aaron said the correct threshold has been 90,000 since July 1, 2012, and this checks out with the updated version of the state law code available through the Georgia General Assembly website.
Bulloch is Georgia’s 32nd largest county by population, and roughly 70 percent of the 32 largest counties have probate judges who are attorneys, Aaron said.
“I’ve not gone county-by-county to see which is which, because frankly I think that takes away from the more important question that y’all, as the voters, should consider, which is what is the qualification of the candidates here before you,” he said.
He then asserted that he, as the one lawyer running, is most qualified.
But DeLoach cited statistics from the Judicial Council that 74 percent of Georgia probate judges are non-attorneys, and 54 percent of those are women. Identifying a bracket of seven similar-size counties instead of looking at the 32 largest, she observed that 100 percent of their probate judges are not attorneys.
Ellis said that Aaron and DeLoach are more qualified than him in terms of legal qualifications, but he asked voters to consider other qualities. If Ellis is elected probate judge and Bulloch County’s population grows beyond the threshold where an attorney would be required, Ellis would resign and call for a special election for a new judge, he said. However, another of the candidates noted that if a non-attorney judge is already serving when the threshold is reached, that judge is allowed to remain in office.
Retiring judge praised
Waters noted that Lee DeLoach is not an attorney, but had been an educator and a real estate broker before first running for probate judge.
All of the candidates praised the work of the retiring incumbent. When they were asked what changes they would make in the office, one said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I think he has set the bar high for each and every one of us that are here on the stage,” Wadley said. “There are very big shoes to fill there. I don’t know that I could come up here and honestly tell any of you that I would change a single thing that he has done. I think what he has done speaks volumes for his character and his leadership in our community.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.