It is not common during an election cycle for judicial candidates to be able to have their say at a community forum. But that is what happened June 14 when candidates for Fayette County Magistrate Court judge and Fayette County State Court judge met before 200 voters in Fayetteville.
The candidates included magistrate judge candidates Catherine Sanderson and Jason Thompson and state court judge candidates Stephen Ott and State Court Judge Carla McMillian.
Each of the candidates gave opening statements prior to fielding questions.
A former trial attorney, McMillian in mid-2010 was appointed as by Gov. Sonny Perdue as Fayette County State Court judge when Judge Fletcher Sams was named to serve as Superior Court judge on the Griffin Judicial Circuit. McMillian in her opening statement took the stance that she is tough on crime and sentencing.
“I value this community and I want it safe and secure for children,” McMillian said, noting one aspect of her approach.
Expanding on her stance, McMillian said she has personal experience in dealing with the after-effects of crime, noting that she had two cousins who were murdered over $40.
“I promise I’ll never forget the high price crime imposes on all of us,” she said.
Stephen Ott is an attorney who currently serves as the municipal judge in Peachtree City and has served as a prosecutor and defense attorney. That experience, Ott said, provides a more complete view of both components of the judicial system, he said. Another aspect of Ott’s judicial outlook deals with outcomes.
“Punishing crime and deterring crime should teach something along the way,” Ott said.
Ott in his opening statement said he would bring dedication to the job and noted the need to be fiscally responsible and cut the cost of court operations where possible.
Catherine Sanderson is the owner of Sanderson Law, PC. Practicing primarily in the area of family law, Sanderson said she has experience in both civil and criminal cases in Fayette County city courts and in magistrate, state and superior courts.
Sanderson in her opening remarks said she has broad experience in dealing with people.
“I can communicate and find solutions that are reasonable,” Sanderson said. “I’m reasonable and fair.”
Jason Thompson has tried cases in all courts in the Griffin Judicial District, serves as Special Appointed Prosecutor in Spalding State Court and is a certified mediator.
Thompson in his opening statement said he loves the Fayette community, adding that, “I’ve been in the trenches with law enforcement and I promise to be ready to serve on Day 1. I’ll work as hard as I can to make this community safe.”
The questioning began once opening remarks had concluded. One question went to McMillian and centered on what was referred to as the large majority of the campaign contributions she had received coming from people living outside Fayette County and specifically those contributions from attorneys outside Fayette.
McMillian said she had contributions of $24,000 from both inside and outside the county. McMillian agreed that a large number of those contributions came from attorneys, explaining that those attorneys practicing in the Atlanta area knew her from law school at the University of Georgia and from her time with an Atlanta law firm.
“They know me and my character and I’m humbled by their support,” McMillian said, adding that, “None of these folks have cases in Fayette County.”
Another question that surfaced dealt with Thompson’s wife who is Assistant Solicitor General in Fayette County and whether her job represented a conflict if he is elected as magistrate judge.
“I spoke with the Superior Court judges and with the Clerk of the Court and they all said it is not an issue,” Thompson responded.
But Sanderson had a comment on the issue, saying that speaking with the clerk and the judges does not answer the question.
“It raises a question of impropriety,” Sanderson said of the married couple representing both the prosecutorial and judicial aspects of the justice system in the same county. “I think could be a real problem for our citizens.”
Thompson then responded, saying that, as magistrate judge, his wife would not appear before him. But Sanderson disagreed, saying that the solicitor would come before the judge on issues such as bond hearings.
In a separate question Sanderson was asked how the court process could be sped up to avoid spending “all day in court.”
“Some things can wait. Some can’t. I will be at the courthouse when I’m on duty. There will be no waiting,” Sanderson said, noting that she would work with other courts to try to expedite the process. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Thompson also responded to the question, suggesting that some cases might be better served in going through a mediation program.
“I think we’ll have a mediation program so (citizens) won’t waste time in the courtroom,” he said.
Ott also weighed in, noting the advantages of diversion programs.
“Cases are different with different problems,” he said, citing examples of diversion programs used in cities such as Peachtree City. “Some people are in court for making poor choices. (Diversion) can help people make better decision in every aspect of life.”
A question answered by all the candidates asked, in terms of expenses, what items in their respective courts they would cut or change.
Ott he would address the number of hours law enforcement officers spend in court, adding that he would streamline the court bureaucracy.
McMillian said she believes the court is currently running efficiently and that law enforcement is only required to attend when the trial will be going forward.
Sanderson in her response said the magistrate court is efficient and well-run, adding that she would be there and available and would not waste the time of citizens or law enforcement.
And Thompson responded saying a mediation program would save on court costs by moving cases through in a quicker fashion.
The candidate’s forum was held at the Harvest Christian Community Center in Fayetteville and was sponsored by the Fayette County Local Issues Tea Party.