Forum held in Cairo for Superior Court Judge race

Published 6:21 pm Friday, May 6, 2016

By Randolph H.Wind, The Cairo Messenger

A political forum was held in Cairo Monday night featuring candidates Michael Bankston, Ryan Cleveland and Heather Lanier for superior court judge of the South Georgia Judicial Circuit.

Candidate Mike Bankston was questioned heavily by both moderator Jeff Lovett of WGRA-790-AM, the press and members of the audience about his Dec. 16, 2015, arrest in Mitchell County for driving under the influence.

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Bankston answered all of the questions calmly and told the live audience and WGRA listeners that that one negative life experience has made him a better person and would make him a better judge than his two opponents.

The subject of Bankston’s DUI arrest dominated the last half of the two-hour forum.

“This is something that has been widely reported and is now being made political. What I can tell you is the case was dismissed by the prosecutor,” Bankston said in response to a question about the DUI from Lovett.

Bankston went on to say that his blood alcohol level was measured at below the legal limit and that, based on the evidence, the prosecutor assigned to the case chose not to prosecute.

He also said he had not had an alcoholic beverage since the Dec. 16 incident.

Cleveland said the time of the arrest, 2:33 a.m., was a concern for him and he said that Bankston had not been held accountable for his actions.

“His boss (District Attorney Joe Mulholland) offered to the public that a penalty would come, but two weeks later it appears nothing was done internally, but a $2,500 contribution was made to his (Bankston’s) campaign,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland went on to say, “To treat this as a badge of honor or a character improvement, I take issue with it. It is unfortunate. I take issue with the fact it has been summarily dismissed, but a judge has not signed off in this. The public can’t expect the same treatment.”

Moderator Lovett asked the three candidates about their relationships with the other attorneys practicing in the South Georgia circuit.

“You’d be better off asking the other attorneys that question. It runs the gamut of those who don’t like me to those who hold me in high regard,” Bankston said. He said he did not hold grudges and that he had learned from Judge A. Wallace Cato that disagreements should not be exposed in open court. “You can say whatever you want in chambers. Air it out and then it’s over. That’s the way I would approach that,” Bankston said.

Cleveland said he did not act any differently in public or private. He described his relationships with other attorneys as cordial, but he expressed concern with the attitude of the district attorney’s office, particularly in dealing with first-time offenders.

Lanier said that she works well with other attorneys in the circuit and said that her colleagues respect her because she works hard and comes to the table prepared. “When I’m in the courtroom, I act professionally and ethically. Should I take the bench, the other attorneys should expect me to conduct myself the same way,” she said.

During the forum Monday night, Lovett asked each of the three what made them the better candidate for the judgeship.

“In a word ‘balance’,” Cleveland said. “My unique world experience, having worked other places than here, is a distinguishing mark. This is a special place with unique problems. Traveling the world and my work in industry outside of law has given me experience in negotiations,” he added.

Lanier said her experience as a mother made her uniquely qualified for the job. “You have to impose boundaries and limits to have a successful child. The characteristics of a good mother are all the characteristics of a judge. You must understand people make mistakes. It’s that perspective of a mother my colleagues do not have,” Lanier said.

“Experience makes me the best candidate. My legal experience, my other life experiences, and my experiences having been married for 38 years and raising four children. I’ve devoted my entire life to southwest Georgia. I think my experience allows me to relate to people of southwest Georgia. My entire legal practice has been in this circuit,” Bankston said.

In their closing statements, each candidate made a final pitch to the voters.

“My experience is my best qualification for this job. My experience in the law for over 30 years, my experience through private life, my experience raising four children and even my one negative life experience that has been aired out quite well tonight, that one negative experience over a lifetime makes me a better person and will make me a better judge,” Bankston said.

“My substantial experience and temperament qualifies me for this seat,” Cleveland said. While he touted his experience in the law and in private industry, he also admitted he had much to learn.

“It’s not the amount of years, it is the quality of years. I’ve been practicing over a decade in this circuit and the Dougherty County circuit. In addition to trying cases, I have continued my public service. I want to help improve this community and that is why I want this job,” Lanier said.

The three candidates are vying to fill the seat of Chief Judge A. Wallace Cato who chose not to seek reelection.

The South Georgia Judicial Circuit, in addition to Grady, includes Mitchell, Decatur, Baker and Calhoun counties.