Jim Whitlock responds to Citizen questions

Tue, 07/01/2008 - 4:42pm
By: Jim Whitlock

1. Why are you interested in being the Probate Judge?

Thirty years ago when I first started my practice, the legal profession was quite different than it is today. Like a lot of lawyers, I handled a wide variety of cases, both civil and criminal. I won my first jury trial, and it felt good to think that I was helping people. I’ve won a lot of cases since then, but the “feel good feeling” is almost lost in the complexities of the profession.
It occurred to me that being Judge of the Probate Court would be a great way to help people. I feel that it would eliminate eighty percent of the stress that a person might encounter while practicing law. I have lived in Fayette County 26 out of the last 32 years and practiced here for the last 30 years. I know the people here, and, I enjoy helping the people of this county. And, if elected judge, I wouldn’t have to leave the county to do an enjoyable and rewarding job.
My law practice has carried me to places in North Georgia such as, Dahlonega, Carrolton, LaGrange, Dublin, Athens and Gainesville. While I enjoy helping people, it is quite taxing to travel to distant places like these to do it, sometimes only to find out that we couldn’t dispose of the case that day, but would have to come back some other day. Last year I made four trips to Douglas County just to try one case. I had already been to Douglasville on three other occasions, just to file paperwork and have hearings on the same case.
I have had the good fortune to serve as Municipal Judge for a total of approximately 12 years. While that judgeship is different from a Probate Judgeship, the principal is the same, you hear the evidence, apply the law, and render a fair and impartial decision. The first thing I did when I was appointed Judge is look for ways to simplify the procedures. Both cities that I have served as Judge were experiencing tremendous growth. Finding solutions to the growth problems in those courts proved to be an exciting challenge to me, but I loved it.
If a judicial candidate has a genuine desire to help people, then, there certainly should be great opportunities to do so in a probate court. Probate Court is where people come when they have lost a love-one, when their parent or grandparent is suffering from Alzheimer’s or is in need of having a guardian appointed to handle their affairs. These cases are very challenging. If you can help people at times like these you should feel a sense of accomplishment.

2. What is your experience in probate matters?

Over the last 30 years, I have practiced in just about all the metro probate courts. I have handled: the probating of Wills, guardianships, petitions to appoint administrator, petitions to appoint administrator with will attached, petitions to appoint a different executor, petition for a year’s support, hearings involving the involuntary hospitalization of incapacitated adults, and temporary custody of incapacitated minors.
Years ago, the Fayette County Probate Court also handled traffic cases prior to the county having a state court. I handled numerous traffic cases over the years before our Probate Court quit handling those cases. This experience is also relevant, now and in the future, in that, from time to time, the judges of state and superior courts, in various counties, ask the probate judges to assist in a heavy case load situations in their courts.
I remember when Judge Stephenson took office years ago, she agreed to assist in a heavy caseload situations by handling some divorce cases. Currently, Judge Stephenson is authorized to sign off (finalize) on various non-contested cases of the superior court. This a great convenience to the citizens in that they can move their cases to a conclusion much quicker. Any probate judge assisting in this fashion should have some background in these cases, and I do.
There has been research done in this state concerning the merging of the probate court with the magistrate court. While I am against such action, should it occur, the judge of the probate court might then be put in the unenviable position of holding criminal probable cause hearings, issuing warrants and holding bond hearings. While I have extensive experience in that area of law, as I said it would be an unenviable position, at least on a full time basis.
I have set in for Judge Martha Stephenson, and Judge Jimmie White, before her, when they were unavailable, but that was on a very limited basis. I served the court years ago as an appraiser in various years support issues. I have also served the court as a guardian ad litem.

3. What is your experience in supervising employees?

I have operated a sole practitioner law office the entire 30 years of my career. I have had one or two employees working for me at any given time.
I also started Rightway Driver Clinic, Inc. in 1978, and I owned, operated, and taught in the schools for several years. I had three or four employees working for me in the schools.
My experience is limited to one to four employees, at any given time, over the last thirty years. That is important. I believe that there is a great difference in the challenge of having fifteen to twenty employees to supervise, than if you only have one to five.
In any case, the Fayette County Probate Court has two senior employees who are looking to retire at the end of the year, and it’s my understanding that there is a hiring freeze countywide at this time. So, come 2009, we may have one fulltime employee and one part-time employee. So, this is the kind of situation I’m familiar with, except, I’m not in the habit of begging a board, or, in this case a Board of Commissioners, to allocate funds to hire new people. But, I’m not even elected yet and all the other Elected officials and department heads are having trouble hiring new people, and in some cases replacing people, who have left the county employment.
If begging is what we have to do, then I’ll get in line to beg, and pick up the slack in the meantime.

4. How efficiently is the current probate court being operated? What changes will you make if elected?

Considering I have been very complimentary of the Fayette County Probate Court in my campaign rhetoric, I’ll be consistent now and say that it seems to serve our county well. I believe this to be in part because it has the personnel that it has. Also, Judge Stephenson has maintained some of the employees over the years and hired others.
I don’t have any knowledge of the relationships behind the scene, as it is not any of my business, and I don’t intend to pry. However, if elected, I do intend to ask Judge Stephenson to assist me, as soon as the elections office declares me the winner, in visiting with her and the staff between now and the 2009 swearing in of the new judge, with regard to several issues.
It is not uncommon for certain cases to linger from one administration to another. Judge Stephenson would be a tremendous help to whoever the new judge is in identifying these cases and briefing the new judge.
I would also like to interview the staff once I’m elected and once they know who the new judge is, and see who wants to continue their employment and who might be dissatisfied.
Only after a complete evaluation of the court could I tell anyone what changes I would want to make. But I do think Judge Stephenson would be very helpful to whichever of us wins the election. I have always found her to be very accommodating.
I have contended all along, that, I want the court to be operated in as simplistic a manner as possible. Until I have a chance to evaluate the court and it’s current procedure in great detail, I’m not sure what changes I will make. I will say however, that any changes that I would propose to make will be based on my efforts to keep it simple.

5. What makes you a better choice than the other candidates?

I think all the candidates for the Fayette County Probate Judgeship know the law and have the ability to learn the law. Learning the law is an important part of that statement because the law quite often changes with the whims of the legislature, and in some fashion almost yearly. I love Seminars. They are mandatory, but I love them anyway.
I’m not running against anyone. I’m running for the position. That being said, I’m not going to put down any candidate, besides, I don’t know either of my opponents well enough to find faults.
While I’m not claiming to be better than either of my opponents, the question is why am I a “better choice”.
If you’re looking for a lawyer who has been before hundreds of Judges and made up his mind that should he become judge, he would not treat the citizens in the demeaning way that a lot of judges do, I might be “a better choice”. If you’re looking for a judge who is dedicated to operating the court in as simplistic a manner as possible, I might be “a better choice”. If you’re looking for a judge who is dedicated to the idea that every person coming into the court should be treated with respect, and treated in a fair and impartial manner, I might be “a better choice”. If you’re looking for judge who doesn’t believe that the court is his, but believes that the court is yours’, I might be “a better choice”.
Nothing I have said in the preceding paragraph has anything to do with any opinion I have of either of my two opponents, I have not seen either of them in service as a judge. I’m simply sharing my views and opinions as to why I would be a good, if not, “a better choice”. The voters, as always, will decide who the new judge will be.

6. Rate the other two candidates as potential probate judges.
For those of you who think I write too much, this answer is for you.
I have not seen either of my opponents in action as a judge, and that would be the only way I would have an opinion. I do my best to concentrate on me, not them.

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Submitted by Love2Teach on Tue, 07/22/2008 - 3:07pm.

Mr. Whitlock: how many cases have you filed in the Fayette County Probate Court in the last twenty years? From the court records it appears you have filed 18 in twenty years. Also, didn't you run as a democrat for magistrate judge in 1984, and you lost? Haven't you run for other offices as a democrat, and lost? Why have you chosen Probate Judge now instead of one of the other offices you ran for before. What makes you more qualified than Ann Jackson to serve as Probate Judge? Did you say at the GOP candidate forum that you had never voted democratic? No wait - you said you never voted in a democratic primary. You just ran as a democrat - is that accurate?

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