By Daniel Silliman
Incumbent and challenger, in the race to be a Clayton County Superior Court judge, are offering very different ideas of what it means to sit on the bench.
Murble Wright, a defense attorney seeking the bench in the upcoming election, emphasized her connection to the community, and the sense of compassion a judge should have.
"You've got to be the voice of the community, a champion to the community," Wright said.
Deborah Benefield, the former county prosecutor, who has been a Superior Court judge since she was first elected in 1992, said a judge takes an oath to do some very specific things.
"What you expect from the judge is someone to take a hard stance, when no one else is willing to," Benefield said. "You need, and must have, a judge with a backbone. I am that judge."
The two women in the race answered a slew of questions on Wednesday night, in front of a crowd of about 40 at a League of Women Voters forum in Lovejoy.
Benefield is up for her fourth election and is being challenged by Wright, who's spent 15 years as a defense attorney in Clayton County and has served as a juvenile court judge.
Benefield, speaking without a microphone, displayed her significant experience by answering every question thoroughly, confidently and forcefully. Sometimes, though, the judge's answers were so forceful they seemed arrogant or unreasonably aggressive, something Wright tried to use against the incumbent.
"It's not necessary to yell, name call, to make someone feel small and have to hang their head down," Wright said. "I don't care if I had a bad day, no sleep at all, or had relationship problems, you have to set that aside to deal with the person in front of you."
Benefield acknowledged the accusation, but said her reputation, at the courthouse, reflects how she's presided over felony and civil cases for the last 16 years and will continue to preside, if elected.
"I believe I'm tough, but fair," Benefield said.
Wright, on the other hand, came off as if she had been personally offended and was holding a grudge. She didn't quite, directly attack Benefield, but tossed out generalized accusations about laziness, ego, ethics, impure motivations and personal values.
Wright's answers were also less thorough than Benefield's, and seemed to meander. Her statements all started out vaguely -- "I believe in fairness" -- and were followed by a sentence signaling transition -- "and let me tell you what I mean by that" -- but then, sometimes, ended up in odd places.
At one point, Wright's statements seemed directly counter to doing the job she said she wanted. When she answered a question about handling problems with staff members, Wright said she's opposed to reprimanding people in public, though a judge is responsible for making official, public condemnations. Though she wants to be a judge over a felony court, where she would preside over rape and murder trials, Wright seems somewhat opposed to sending people to jail.
"I think we need to understand why people are committing crimes in the first place, not to build more jails," Wright said. "Putting them into prison does not stop them from committing crimes, it's just pushing the problem away."
Benefield gave a long, detailed answer to a question about the use of "alternative sentencing," supporting drug programs and rehabilitation, saying the legislature has failed the state by not putting enough money into alternative-sentencing programs.
"I use every alternative available to the court, prior to sending anyone to prison," Benefield said, but she also described fighting for tough sentences, depending on the particular case.
"You have to know the law and enforce the law, not make the law," Benefield said. "That's what you take an oath to do."