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Judge candidates answer questions for public

By BETH ALSTON
beth.alston@americustimesrecorder.com

AMERICUS — The Southwest Georgia Judicial Circuit Bar Association recently hosted three public forums so citizens could meet and hear from the three candidates for the Superior Court judge’s seat being vacated by Judge George Peagler, who is retiring at the end of 2016. The candidates are Jimmie Brown of Lee County, Kevin Kwashnak of Americus, and Lewis Lamb of Lee County. All three are attorneys.
The forum in Americus was moderated by local attorney Justin Arnold.
Following an introduction period, questions were taken from the audience.
Question: “Assuming you get elected, how long do you plan to serve, and where would your office be located?”
Brown: “I presume my office would be located in the judge’s office which is here in this building. Our circuit is six counties big … all the way from the Chattahoochee River to I-75 and as far north as Schley County down to Lee County. Americus is not only the largest city in the circuit, geographically it’s in the center of the circuit. It doesn’t make sense for the primary judges’ offices to be anywhere except Americus. Every courthouse has a little office that the judges use when they go try cases. The correct answer to the question would be ‘depending on which courthouse I’m in at the time.’ But the primary office, where my secretary would be …  would be here in Americus. Actually where I live in Lee County, it’s closer for me to come here than it is to go to my office in Albany. … As far as locating the judges’ offices, here.”
Kwashnak: “At this time I would plan to have the office here in Sumter County. That’s where the court system has been focused for so long I don’t see any reason to change it.
“As for how long I intend to serve, as long as people keep electing me. I don’t have any set time limit … ”
Lamb: “ … Sumter County has been kind enough that when they built this new courthouse to build in space for the judges to have all the resources they need here. … The judges were actively involved in the planning process in terms of helping to lay out this building and to lay out the chambers of the court … I think they did a great job of doing that and Sumter County has been a great host to the Superior Court of the Southwestern Circuit and my office would be here if I were elected.
“I would like to say that I would serve as long people kept voting me into office but if that happened more than four terms at my age and my children being the ages they are … I think that would be a long enough and a fulfilling career; when I reach retirement age, basically.”
Question: “Why do we have fewer jury trials in our circuit?”
Kwashnak: “Part of the reason is we’ve gotten a better working relationship between the Public Defender’s Office and the D.A.’s Office that has lead to resolution of a lot of cases in ways that don’t require a jury trial, either through alternatives to sentence, through dismissals, or through guilty pleas that can be arranged with the individuals involved. The defendants look at the jury trials and are seeing that you don’t know what’s going to happen. They could have much more control over a guilty plea than a jury trial. Sometimes it depends on how much they’re willing to spend.
“I believe that there are several cases that do need to be tried and need to be pushed to be tried and do need to be handled soon and do need to be handled by a jury. As a judge I would intend to move those forward as soon as possible and as quickly as possible. If by leaving a case hanging out there waiting for a jury trial to be done it leaves any victims of the case and anybody involved in the case just in limbo until there’s a resolution … I believe we need to move these cases. Sometimes with the judges requiring and telling parties that a case is going to be tried it leads to a resolution one way or the other … but it’s often up to the judge to say ‘this case is going to be tried’ and not just let it get pushed off calendar after calendar after calendar. I believe communication has made it easier, but I believe we need to bet more of these other cases actually handled.”
Lamb: “Every case that goes to trial involves the commitment of resources of behalf of the county … the D.A.’s Office, in most instances now in the criminal system, the … Public Defender’s Office because the Public Defender’s Office ends up representing the cast majority of defendants. A lot of time those resources are competing with each other. You have multiple cases and somebody has to make a decision of which case is going to be tried and which is not going to be tried. … Because of our case assignment process at the District Attorney’s Office, certain attorneys handle cases in almost exclusively in different areas. I handle the vast majority of cases in Lee County and we have tried cases … every term that we’ve had juries in the building, we have tried something for the last five years. There may have been one term of court where no cases got tried and that was just because they were all resolved or a motion on plea day or at calendar call and that sort of thing.
“I think the reason there are fewer civil cases being tried are the same things Mr. Brown mentioned earlier, is that people use mediators … arbitration; they use all kinds of dispute resolution. Ultimately everybody in this system knows that … You can try to project with some certainty … what a judge might do with the case. You can project with some certainty what you’re doing with the case if you agree to resolve it in some way. When you turn it over to a jury …  there are some cases that have to go that far because they can’t be resolved.”
Brown: “That question is more in control of the attorneys. … If elected I would be one of three judges and basically the judges don’t get to pick and choose which cases come before them. They don’t get to pick and choose what negotiations take place, but there are certain things a judge can do. They have  a certain amount of control of the cases before them. Sometimes there gets to be a complacency or at least the impression of complacency as far as deals that are made or … if there’s not a certainty of conviction, there’s a trade-off … As a matter of policy, you can’t just have a policy of being harsh or being lenient because each case is different, each party is different, each claim is different, each accusation is different. You basically have to pick someone that’s got some sense and in large part, the most informed participants regarding the deal would be the attorneys representing both sides. I think miost judges respect the agreement that the attorneys make, but the judge does have the authority to reject the deal. That’s where the judicial discretion comes in. If you see something that basically doesn’t sit right with you, you can just tell the attorneys ‘I’m not going with this one.’ You don’t necessarily have to tell them which way you’ll go … and let them go take another whack at it. I think all a judge can do is require professionalism from all participants … prosecutors, public defenders, everyone who’s on the public payroll serving the public, from the court reporters to the clerks, the bailiffs to the law enforcement people … and the jurors who take their time out to try a case. They need to be respected. … Law enforcement officers themselves, any of whom come off a night shift to sit there in the hallway only to find out after they’ve sat there for a couple of hours, that the case is not even going to be heard today because someone’s not ready to try it. If the attorneys don’t come to court prepared for trial, that is something the judges would have control over.”