It’s important we get the Superior Court Judge race right

Published 6:34 pm Friday, May 20, 2016

Every four years, on the same cycle as the Presidential election, Decatur County residents vote on and choose our four local officers as provided for in the Georgia Constitution. Sheriff, Tax Commissioner, Probate Judge and Clerk of Superior Court are those offices created by the constitution.

Most election years, with some exceptions, each of those offices is contested and the electorate has a choice to make via the ballot box.

On the same cycle is the office of Judge of Superior Court. While the constitutional officers are countywide, the Superior Court Judge serves a circuit of five counties. In our case, the counties of Decatur, Grady, Mitchell, Baker and Calhoun make up the South Judicial Circuit.

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Unlike the constitutional offices, contested races for Superior Court Judge are much more rare. In fact, the electorate in this circuit has not had to vote for either of our two Superior Court Judges, currently Wallace Cato and Kevin Chason, since 1996 and Cato has never had opposition in his nearly 38 years on the bench.

When judges are doing a good job, they rarely have opposition. That has been the case in our circuit for many years.

So, we are in rare air with this opportunity to choose the judge to fill the seat left vacant with Cato’s retirement. We must get this right and make the right decision. There is a good chance that it will be years again before we have the privilege of hiring another Superior Court Judge.

In my view, this position is, and should be, the most revered position of any of our local elections.

A judge should be among the most objective, unbiased, and just person in any community or circuit. Judgment and character must be unparalleled.

That’s exactly what we have had for the last 38 years with Judge Cato.

tAnd that’s exactly why there should be concerns by the electorate of what the campaign for Superior Court Judge has become.

As I drove home Tuesday afternoon from a hearing at the Mitchell County Courthouse, I couldn’t help but wonder why, one week before the election, a candidate asking to be our Superior Court Judge was in a courtroom answering to a driving under the influence charge five months after the arrest.

It’s known far and wide that candidate Mike Bankston, current Chief Assistant District Attorney in the South Judicial Circuit, was arrested for driving under the influence in Mitchell County last December.

Bankston was issued a citation for DUI from officers responding to an accident in which Bankston’s vehicle hit a semi-truck that ran a red light. The driver of the semi-truck was determined to be at fault for the accident, but the Georgia Highway Patrol arrested Bankston for suspected DUI.

After several refusals, Bankston ultimately decided to take a breath test roughly four hours after the accident occurred. The breath test indicated a blood alcohol level of .058. The legal limit is .08.

These are irrefutable facts of the circumstances surrounding this arrest.

In January, after several judges and solicitors recused themselves from the case, Sam Olens, Georgia Attorney General, appointed Charles Spahos or his designee as Solicitor General Pro Temp to prosecute the charge against Bankston. Spahos is the Executive Director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council (PAC) of Georgia.

In February, Spahos filed an Administrative Dismissal and Nolle Prosse document indicating that he had no intention of pursuing the charges against Bankston. However, a presiding judge had not signed the dismissal and has still not signed the dismissal.

This is why I found myself, along with Bankston, Spahos, and two criminal defense attorneys, in a Mitchell County courtroom with specially appointed Lowndes County State Court Judge Kelly Turner presiding.

I found it interesting that the prosecutor in this case, Spahos, was acting more as a defense attorney for Bankston than were his actual defense attorneys. I also find it interesting that as the Executive Director of PAC, Spaho felt the need to personally handle this case and spend a Tuesday afternoon in Camilla four hours away from his office.

The pending DUI charge against Bankston and the successive posturing has drawn considerable attention throughout the five-county circuit, and for good reason.

In the end, Judge Turner said she would make a decision on this case within 10 days. The charges will either be dropped or it will go forward to trial.

Whichever is the case, it’s unfortunate that a candidate for what should be the most revered locally elected office is in this position. And, it is unfortunate that voters will most likely not know the outcome of this case before Election Day.

We need to get this right. It could be years before we have the chance to elect another Superior Court Judge.