Candidates stress efficiency, education

By Ed Brock

The candidates for Clayton County probate judge and magistrate court chief judge are all stressing the need for efficient court processes and educating the public on what the courts do.

In the probate judge race, incumbent Judge Pamela Ferguson must defend the seat she won just about nine months ago in a special election. Her challenger is attorney Bobby Simmons who says he wants to make the probate court system faster and easier.

Magistrate Court Judge Gloria Darty Reed says she has the experience, and her challenger Daphne Melinda Walker said she wants to usher in some new ideas.

Probate judge

Ferguson, 40, was elected in October 2003 to replace retiring Judge Eugene Lawson.

Ferguson, who has practiced law for the past 14 years in Jonesboro, grew up in the legal system, working with her father, Monroe Ferguson, who has been an attorney for 37 years.

She is a certified mediator and a certified arbitrator.

Ferguson attended Clayton State College and transferred to the University of Georgia, where she graduated with a BA degree in 1986. Later she earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Georgia in 1989 and was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia in June of 1989.

She's been working just as hard on this campaign as she did on her campaign last year, Ferguson said.

"I really enjoy my job and I want to continue doing it," Ferguson said.

Since her election Ferguson has joined several committees with other probate judges, such as a committee to revise the state forms used in the probate court. She has also initiated a new computer system to track the court's requests for vital records (birth and death certificates), a system that determines who is being served and how long it is taking.

"That way, customers can be served more efficiently," Feruguson said.

She's also networked some computers in the court to make them more efficient and she has revised some of the court's information pamphlets to make them easier to understand.

Also, Ferguson said she visits probate courts in other counties to learn from them as well.

Ferguson said she wants to continue to serve the public in a respectful and even-handed manner.

Simmons, 49, has lived in the Hampton area for three years and practiced in Forest Park since 1990. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas (his home state) and got his law degree from the Mississippi College of Law.

When Simmons first moved to the Atlanta area in 1979 he worked as a technologist at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta and then managed the Radiology Department at Southwest Community Hospital. He began practicing law in 1986 in Atlanta before moving his practice to Forest Park.

Simmons said he's been talking to civic groups, meeting people and personally handling some of the details of his campaign.

Keeping the probate court efficient is one of his biggest issues.

"To me, and I've gathered this from others too, when you walk into probate court you wonder if you're in the right place," Simmons said. "I'll make sure somebody greets the clients."

He also wants the court to offer assistance in filling out the forms required in some instances so long as no legal advice is needed. Simmons also said he wants to cut back on duplicate data entry and merge some documents to make the court function more efficiently.

Saving time with more efficient practices would mean the court staff would be able to perform some new services such as the assistance with forms, Simmons said.

Simmons also wants to start a "probate watch."

"AS a probate judge you have the duty to determine if certain estates have to be probated," Simmons said.

In many cases when there is no will and no known heirs the court must appoint a county administrator to dispose of the estate, something Simmons said is not being done fast enough and so the estate property is frequently auctioned off.

"I want to find the rightful heirs and let them profit from it," Simmons said.

And Simmons said he wants to see the probate court grow and "not just have it sit there and say I'm happy with the status quo."

Chief Magistrate Judge

At the beginning of 2004 53-year-old Reed became the first black woman to be appointed as a judge in Clayton County Magistrate Court. The man who appointed her, current Chief Judge Michael Baird, has decided not to run again so he can take a job at Clayton College & State University in Morrow.

Prior to her appointment, Reed worked for six years as a legal representative for Clayton County Department of Family and Children Services. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Reed graduated from Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas and received her law degree from the John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta. She has worked in Clayton County since 1986 and lived in Jonesboro for five years.

Her campaign has her "running in a thousand different directions, trying to let people see my face."

"I'm optimistic," Reed said.

Her main issue is maintaining the course of the court, which she said is the fourth busiest in the state. At the same time she wants to protect the rights of the citizens and provide "justice with moderation."

"So the people feel like they've been heard when they come to court," Reed said.

Reed also plans to make sure all of the judges in the magistrate court have the best training.

"I want to make sure we're on top of things," Reed said.

She also wants to educate the public on what the court does.

"I tell people I have an open court, come see me," Reed said.

Her experience is her most important asset, Reed said.

"You can't have somebody who has no experience with this court to come in and run this court," Reed said.

Walker, 32, is counting on her experience as senior assistant district attorney in Fulton County, along with some new ideas, to make her the county's chief magistrate judge.

"I've been getting very good response particularly from people who want to see new and experienced leadership in Clayton County," Walker said.

A native of Fort Valley, Walker graduated magnum cum laude from Spelman College in Atlanta and received her law degree from Emory University Law School. She has been practicing law since 1998 and for the past two years has had a law practice in Jonesboro.

During her years as an ADA she worked in the Crimes Against Women and Children Unit and she is especially proud of the work she did prosecuting the case against then 38-year-old Andrew Moore of Atlanta, convicted of "pimping" a 12-year-old child prostitute. Moore was convicted and the case helped promote legislation to make "pimping" a felony.

Her experience as a criminal defense attorney in her current practice has taught her another important lesson, Walker said.

"It is important that sometimes the defendant is falsely accused," Walker said.

Walker said she wants to see more pre-trial intervention programs for non-violent, first-time offenders. And she wants the magistrate court to reflect the county's diversity.

In particular, she would like to appoint a Hispanic judge.

"That's a growing population here and I'd like to have a judge who speaks the language," Walker said.

Walker also said she thinks her community involvement with the county school system's mock trial program for high school students, as a member of the Kiwanis Club of Riverdale and as a volunteer with the Girl Scouts of America will make her a good choice for chief judge.

"I will administer the court with a sense of compassion, a sense of fairness, honesty and integrity," Walker said.

All of the candidates in both races are Democrats.