Evans, Merritt square off
By Kathryn Schiliro
Around 100 people gathered Monday evening at the James Madison Conference Center for a “judicial forum” between Terry Evans and Charles Merritt, both candidates for Morgan County Probate Judge.
The forum, sponsored by local Democratic and Republican parties as well as the Madison-Morgan Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Citizen editor and publisher Patrick Yost, included three-minute opening statements, a series of 10 audience-generated questions and ended with three-minute closing statements.
In sharing with the audience their backgrounds, the candidates showcased how their life experiences would serve them in the post of Probate Judge.
A Morgan County resident for 20 years, Evans touted his more than 40 years in public service, his involvement in local organizations (the Chamber of Commerce, Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, American Legion and current posts as chairman of the Morgan Memorial Hospital Authority and chairman of the deacons at Antioch Baptist Church) and his decades of experience in human resources (HR) – including business management of two Fortune 500 companies, he said – as qualifications he'd bring to the table, citing his HR experience as giving him the skills he'd need as a judge to communicate effectively with those in the court.
Merritt, a county resident for 26 years, cited his legal experience – four years of legal training at Ole Miss, a Master's degree from Emory and 26 years of legal experience including the practice of probate law (he's currently a Madison-based attorney with a private practice) – as good preparation for the Probate Judge post. In addition, he spoke about being the Madison Municipal Court Judge for decades, handling traffic citations and misdemeanor marijuana and shoplifting charges, as well as his previous experience on the Morgan Memorial Hospital Authority, the city’s Downtown Development Authority and as serving as the Morgan County attorney as well as the city attorney for Shadydale, Buckhead and Rutledge.
Asked about their most important attributes, Evans cited his availability, a key point in the campaign he’s been running, stating he’d be in the Probate Court Judge’s office all day, every day.
“Will he (Merritt) be there when needed?” Evans asked. “I think that's the key in this election. There will not be a need for appointments, you will never have to go looking for me.”
Merritt cited his legal experience, stating, “I'm an attorney...with a thorough and deep understanding of probate law. This is not a job where you show up and punch the clock.”
He continued to say that state law dictates it’s OK for attorneys acting as Probate Court judges to keep their private practice and also vowed to put his duties as Probate Court Judge before those of his private practice.
Asked about the importance of tasks that go on in Probate Court, Evans said that court engages with people in heightened emotional states – i.e. the probating of wills – stating that the court needs “someone who has some heart, someone who has some emotion.” Merritt said he believes the most important task of that court is the “protection of minor children and incapacitated adults” – “These are people who are helpless,” Merritt said – calling the court “the last line of defense” against fraud and misappropriation.
Merritt and Evans differed when asked about whether personnel law, mediation and dispute resolution were essential to the effective operation of the Probate Court. Merritt argued it was “not at all” part of the judge’s duties – “It's not the job of a judge to counsel people,” he said – while Evans stated the post needs a mediator, or “someone who cares,” especially given the emotional state people may be in when visiting Probate Court.
In a cost-related question, candidates were also asked whether elections supervision should be returned to the purview of the Probate Court.
Evans said this should be researched but that “every official in the county should be looking to save money... Right now I think we need to look into every nook and cranny.”
Merritt said he believes it’s the decision of the Board of Commissioners as to which entity is responsible for supervising elections and whether or not to abolish the county’s 10-year-old Board of Elections. He added that, as the owner of a local law firm, he’s a small business manager and has that experience as well.
In closing, Evans thanked supporters and shamed those, apparently a small group of local attorneys, who paid for an advertisement in the Citizen “taking me (Evans) to task as a person,” calling the move “playground tactics.”
Merritt also thanked supporters, asked those present to encourage voting and again cited his legal experience as why he's better qualified– “I have something to offer; I have my experience.”
Printed in the July 26, 2012 edition.