Candidates for Sumter County Chief Magistrate make their case at Americus Kiwanis Club

Published 12:58 am Tuesday, October 13, 2020

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AMERICUS – On Friday, October 9, the two candidates for the position of Sumter County Chief Magistrate tried to make their cases for why one or the other should be elected to that office at a forum hosted by the Americus Kiwanis Club (AKC) in the dining hall of the Marshall Student Center on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University.

Tracy Hall, the republican candidate for the office, is running against Crystal Cleveland, the democratic candidate. Each candidate is trying to succeed outgoing Chief Magistrate Connie Johnson, who is retiring.

Both candidates were given five to seven minutes to explain why they should be the one to be elected to the Office of Chief Magistrate to succeed Judge Johnson.

Before the candidates had a chance to speak, Herschel Smith, the moderator of the forum, explained to the crowd gathered, as well as to those watching via the live stream, what the duties of the Chief Magistrate are according the research he had done on the subject. He stated that in Georgia, each county has a Chief Magistrate that is elected by the voters and that the Chief Magistrate has the authority to hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases and to conduct bench trials for certain Misdemeanor offenses, such as writing bad checks. The Chief Magistrate also has the authority to grant bail, except in serious felony charges and presides over Small Claims Court cases if the amount of controversy does not exceed $15,000.00. Smith went on to explain that in some counties, a Chief Magistrate may be authorized to appoint one or more magistrates and in other counties, a Probate Judge may preside as a Chief Magistrate. Smith continuing by stating that most magistrates in Georgia are not required to be licensed attorneys, but in some counties, magistrates are required to be licensed attorneys.

Smith continued by stating that the State of Georgia also created a Magistrate Council to assist magistrates in carrying out their duties.

Crystal Cleveland, the democratic candidate for Chief Magistrate of Sumter County, makes her case as to why she should be elected to that post at the weekly meeting of the Americus Kiwanis Club.
Photo by Ken Gustafson

Crystal Cleveland, the democratic candidate, was the first to speak and started out by saying that she is a native of Sumter County, but moved to Michigan with her mother and stepfather when she was seven years old due to her stepfather’s job at General Motors.

She stated that she attended college at Florida A&M University (FAMU), where she received her Bachelors in Political Science Pre-Law. She stated that she asked to work in the dean’s office at the university and that she was offered a scholarship to work towards her Masters in Public Administration at FAMU.

“I have wanted to be a lawyer since I was five years old,” said Cleveland. “I did a pageant here in Sumter County and that’s when I pronounced that I wanted to be a lawyer.” Cleveland went on to say that her family, along with her friends and the community of Sumter County, aided her and pushed her to achieve her goal of being a lawyer from the age of five onward.

Cleveland continued by stating that she attended law school at Barry University in Orlando, FL, but when her grandmother had a heart attack, she transferred to John Marshall Law School in Atlanta so that she could be within driving distance of Americus to help take care of her grandmother.

During her time in Atlanta, Cleveland stated that she was able to get an internship with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DOJJ), where she was shadowing police officers as they went back and forth from Juvenile Court. Cleveland stated that after her internship, she was offered a part-time job as an on-call officer with the DOJJ, which basically had her working on weekends and holidays.

Cleveland stated that during her time in law school, she was offered a position as a part-time professor at South Georgia Technical College (SGTC) teaching American Government, a position she still holds today. “I enjoy it so much. The students are so awesome,” said Cleveland. “I get to have a hand in helping them understand a little bit more how government works, even though they might not be a Poli-Sci Major or decide to go into government themselves. Just helping them to understand that policy comes to every position.”

Cleveland went on to say that there is a policy and regulation in every walk of life and that it is important for people to understand that. She also stated that her aunt, Cpl. Montena H. Fish, was a huge influence in her being in law enforcement. “I saw her passion for Sumter County,” said Cleveland. “I saw, even up until her death, how she loved her job. She loved Sumter County, so that influenced me to want to come back home and want to be here and want to serve.”

Cleveland went on to say that the education and experience that she has gained so far led her to want to work for the Sumter County Board of Elections, where she served from January 2018 until she was asked to become the Supervisor of Elections. “I enjoyed the Supervisor of Elections position so much because I saw what went behind the scenes in an election,” said Cleveland. “One of the most important things I had to learn was policy and the legislation behind why everything goes on in an election.”

Cleveland went on to share her experience as one of the attorneys in Sumter County for the SOWEGA Victims Alliance. “That was an awesome opportunity where I was able to, right after graduation, become a civil attorney with one of the local agencies,” said Cleveland. “I worked with the whole jurisdiction. I would go to Schley, Macon, Lee, Webster, Stewart Counties and here in Sumter County and I had the awesome opportunity of head spearing the Family Law Information Center, the FLIC Center, where we were able to lift some of the weight off of some of the Superior Court clerks and the clerk offices,” said Cleveland. She added that she was able to help numerous clients in civil cases such as divorce and legitimation and mentioned her experience working with the DFACS Office for Child Support to help some of the fathers get their rights to their children and that the FLIC center was instrumental in helping some of the citizens understand the legal process.

Cleveland said that back in January of this year, she wanted to pursue the Chief Magistrate position when she found out that Judge Johnson was more than likely not going to run for another term. “I’m looking for your support. I appreciate you guys having me here,” said Cleveland.

Once Cleveland was done speaking, it was Tracy Hall’s turn to make her case for why she should be elected as the next Chief Magistrate for Sumter County. Hall started out by saying that she was “born and raised Sumter County and very much Sumter County proud.” She mentioned that she is the daughter of Paul and Jeanie Hall, a graduate of Southland Academy and a graduate of the Mercer University School of Medicine. Hall also stated that she is a family therapist and has served Sumter County at the Methodist Home, for Junior Cotillions, the Sumter County Elections Office and as a trauma therapist for victims, as well as an evictions therapist for felony offenders. “Right now, I’m working at the TR (Americus Times-Recorder), where I do a little bit of writing and I have done a lot of community volunteering, a lot of community initiatives and have been involved with a lot of families of faith,” said Hall.

Hall told the group assembled, as well as those watching the live stream, that she wanted them to know that the Magistrate Court is also known as the “People’s Court”. She added that the Magistrate Court is where local law enforcement gets their warrants signed and it’s where the community goes to have their disputes settled without having to have the complications of a lawyer. “Why do I want to serve on the People’s Court? It’s really simple. Because of people,” said Hall. “Therapists are the peoplelest people of all the people. My skills are uniquely qualified to make for a great magistrate. I’m excellent at conflict resolution and risk assessments, in practicing an unconditional positive regard for people. I’m skilled in supervising and completing budgets. I have been on-call 24/7 for all of my career and I’m very good at procuring relationships with stakeholders.” Hall went on to say that she has done these things for over 20 years and that these are the things that will make her an excellent choice for Chief Magistrate.

Hall stated that she started down the path of pursuing the Chief Magistrate Office in 2015 when she was robbed and pistol whipped by three men on her front porch. “It was a horrendous trauma to have to overcome,” said Hall. “But one of the ways that I overcame it was that I dug down and learned everything I possibly could about the justice system or the justice process.”

Hall added that while doing her research on the American Justice System, she discovered that everything starts in the Magistrate Court. She wondered if she could be a judge in a magistrate court and could she do things, such as appropriately sign warrants, make fair bonds and provide a solid foundation for the superior courts and could she listen with an unbiased ear to small claims courts. Hall came to the conclusion that the answer to all of those questions was an absolute “Yes I can.”

Hall added that she is uniquely qualified to be a Chief Magistrate because she has had the experience seeing several sides of a case. “I have worked with victims and with felony offenders as they have walked the road to recovery,” said Hall. “I have a unique ability to hold the tension of several opposing opinions and be able to provide a fair assessment and solid judgment,” continued Hall.

She added that one part of the role of a Magistrate Judge that really excites her is the role of service. “I have a heart for service. It is a family legacy for us Halls,” said Hall. “I look at it very simply. I look at it like a potluck dinner. Who doesn’t love a potluck dinner? People bring their very best to the table and you are invited to take whatever you want, but there is an expectation that you are going to bring your very best to the table.” Hall added that she can and, if elected, will bring her very best to Sumter County’s table as the Chief Magistrate.

Hall concluded her speech by promising three things:

(1). She promises dedication and plans to serve her neighbors like she has served Georgia’s families for over 20 years.

(2). She promises to act with integrity, knowing that there will be both easy and hard decisions to make as Chief Magistrate of Sumter County. “In the end, I want you to be able to say of me that I made the right decision,” said Hall.

(3). Community: Hall stated that she promises to do her best to ensure that Sumter County is better for having her. “I will do my best to make sure she (Sumter County) is thriving like we know she can thrive,” said Hall.

“Dedication, integrity, community: These are my promises to you and I keep my promises,” said Hall.

She concluded her speech by addressing a question that she has asked herself 1,000 times. “Am I, with my skill set, going to be comfortable in a courtroom-type setting,” said Hall. She went on to say that she asked several lawyers and judges if her skill set is appropriate for a courtroom. She also said that she asked those same lawyers and judges what they would like to see out of a magistrate. “Bottom line, the two things that I heard over and over again was ‘We want somebody that is an expert in human behavior and we want somebody who is an expert in this community.’ I can give you those two things,” said Hall. “I have one particular lawyer friend who got very forthright with me and he just told me ‘Tracy, you have got to remember that the Magistrate’s Court is set up to where lawyers are not required. You have got to remember that Magistrate’s Court is to be accessible and simple, and when people like me and my lawyer friends come into the courtroom, it has a tendency to be anything but simple.’ That really resonated with me,” said Hall. “So not only do I know that my experience is excellent, I also think my experience is required.”

With that, Hall thanked the AKC for their time and for the contributions that they make to Sumter County and thanked them for their vote.