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Q&A: Candidates for Newton County judge’s seat in Tuesday runoff

Two veteran attorneys are asking voters Tuesday, Aug. 11, to elect them to be among five judges deciding such matters as criminal guilt or how some marriages should end in Newton and Walton counties.

Jeffrey Foster of Monroe and Robert Stansfield of Covington are seeking election to a Superior Court judgeship for the two-county Alcovy Judicial Circuit in the runoff election.

The winner will replace Judge Eugene Benton of Monroe, who is retiring at the end of the year after 16 years on the bench. 

Superior Court judges preside over all criminal felony trials and have exclusive jurisdiction over divorces, among other legal matters, according to information from the Alcovy circuit.

Foster is a partner in the Foster, Hanks and Ballard law firm in Monroe. He also serves as judge of Social Circle Municipal Court and is a former associate Walton County Magistrate judge and Monroe Municipal Court judge.

He earned his law degree from the University of Georgia School of Law, worked as a law clerk for Superior Court Judge John Ott and as chief assistant district attorney for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit before opening his law firm in 2004.

Stansfield is a partner in the Greer, Stansfield & Turner law firm in Covington. 

He earned his law degree from Emory University School of Law and worked for other law firms before opening his own in 1996.

They are meeting in a runoff after neither gained a majority in a three-person, nonpartisan election June 9.

Foster was the top vote-getter with 37% followed by Stansfield with 32% — both far below the 50% plus one vote required to avoid a runoff. Newton County resident Cheveda McCamy received 31% and did not qualify.

The following responses have been edited for brevity and clarity:

Both of you are asking the voters for a job. What are you telling voters who ask you why you are the best qualified for this job other than anyone else?

FOSTER: My main thrust, obviously, has been my experience. 

Everybody’s a lawyer, everybody’s smart, everybody knows how to research. I try to say this with a certain sense of humility that I had opportunities. It kind of positions me to be the person that has had a wide and very civil litigation practice. 

But it’s also had extensive family law, domestic relations involvement. Roughly, a little over half of the civil filings are domestic relations. All total, family law and criminal law account for 80% of the Superior Court caseload. Everything else, every personal injury lawsuit, every business dispute, every contract … will dispute … that makes it up to Superior Court is 20%.

You arrive at that point as a prosecutor and as a criminal defense attorney for the last 17 years, as a civil litigator, family law, and having had over 10 years as a judge and a magistrate in municipal court. I’m fortunate enough to have a unique set of experiences that nobody else has. I think that uniquely positions me for the bench.

It’s a big circuit — they’re two very big counties. Over that period of time, having actually had offices in both counties, having actually worked out of the Newton County Courthouse, having a practice (in Walton County), I think it’s a good thing to have a greater level of understanding of both the folks and the geography and the demographics of the community in both counties. 

That combination of opportunities to spend a good amount of time in the Newton County Courthouse, working in the DA’s office, working as a law clerk, and then having my own office (in Monroe) certainly is another added thing that is presented to me.

I’m confident that I’m the best prepared if you had to take the bench tomorrow and hear half a day of criminal motions and then half a day of civil that included a couple of domestic relations and a couple other matters, I think I’m best suited to do that. 

There’s nothing that would come up that I have not been in a position of having to handle as a judge, as a private attorney or as a prosecutor.

STANSFIELD: I have the longest experience, the most experience, the uninterrupted experience of either of the candidates.

I’ve practiced law full-time for 31 years. I haven’t taken any sabbaticals. I haven’t quit practicing law because of any health issues. I haven’t been a part-time judge where you’re worried about low-level ordinance violations and warrants. I’ve been working on complicated matters that go to Superior Court and Appellate Courts.

To my knowledge, I am the only candidate who has had a case taken by the Supreme Court of Georgia on a writ of Certiorari. That is an appeal process that is discretionary and the Supreme Court only takes cases on Certiorari that it believes address important issues. 

They took up my case where the Court of Appeals had reversed the trial judge. On Certiorari, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and distinguished existing case law that the Court of Appeals relied upon.  

I’m the only candidate whose appellate work has not been reversed by the court of appeals or declined to be followed.

Most importantly, our circuit — especially with the (July 1) death of Horace Johnson — needs someone with broad, civil experience across a range of issues. Not just family law, not just one portion of the civil law, but the whole gamut of it.

My practice has been in all 53 volumes of the Georgia Code — from alcoholic beverages to wills. That sort of experience interpreting the law and applying the law across a whole range of issues is important.

Right now, of the judges that are on the bench — the ones who are remaining, I'm not talking about Judge Benton — none of them have practiced in private practice and they've been career prosecutors. Career prosecutors bring a special skill set to the bench.

Mr. Foster was John Ott's law clerk, Ken Wynne's chief assistant and was at the prosecutor's office when Layla Zon was hired. He is of that mindset and formation.

Our Superior Court shouldn't be an alumni association for the Alcovy Circuit. It has to have a broad spectrum of experience, not just one type of experience.

Hospitals have more than surgeons. When you look at the doctors at a hospital, they all didn't go to the same medical school and they all didn't go to the same residency program.

We need diversity of experience on the bench. We need someone on the bench who knows the "bread and butter" law that affects everybody's life — not just criminal law, not just family law.

That's why I think I'm the best candidate for this position at this time.

Other judges have taken the initiative to champion accountability courts in the past. Will that be a focus for you after you get on the bench?

STANSFIELD: I have throughout my campaign advocated for alternative courts. I would like to pick up the mantle, with Judge Johnson's death, to work with the Veterans' Court.

I'm not a veteran. I graduated from military high school. I actually worked on a military base in Europe — Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers, Europe — with the chaplain's office working with military families.

I have some exposure to the military and I would be happy if I were allowed to pick up that mantle with the Veterans Court.

Alternative courts are set by statute, but there are other states that have expanded alternative courts. General review in our circuit, and certainly in Newton County, is that they are a worthwhile investment. If we can take what we've learned from the ones that we have and find a way to expand it to other unique issues then I would support that.

FOSTER: I’m a big believer in the accountability courts. Some of that comes from I spent an amount of time as a part-time lawyer and in ministry in Loganville at the Ministry Village. 

Most of those folks had legal problems and we provided some pro-bono legal services to try to help them wind their way through some of that. Most of them dealt with mental health issues, most of them dealt with addiction — typically together.

We had 15 different social workers available and I coordinated a lot of the addiction recovery and kept them plugged in and was able to find scholarships for those folks.

A lot of that is what the accountability courts are. I think I have a unique circumstance because I’ve been an advocate for some of those folks through the accountability courts and I’ve also worked as a service provider for some of those courts.

I certainly have ideas for our accountability courts that I would like to explore the feasibility.

I would like to see one intake point. We have an accountability court for child support which addresses some of the mentoring, especially young men, and helping with job skills and job placement. We have a mental health court. We have a drug court. 

Yet, practically speaking very few people come into one of those courts that one of those other things are not an issue. 

Very few folks are dealing with just an addiction issue that there is not some element of mental health. Many folks that struggle with raising their children and providing child support, and job stability that goes with it, also find themselves struggling with the addiction and the mental health issues.

I would like to see a single entry point from whatever vehicle arrives you there — whatever criminal case, whatever child support case.

I would love to see the feasibility of having everybody going through one screening and, if someone in the child support court needs mental health services then let’s get the mental health services to them. If somebody in the addictions court really needs something that’s available in the child support court, I think we should be trying to find a way to provide those.

Like it or not, mental health care in our country has been foisted upon the criminal justice system. The reality is that’s not where that belongs, but in the great swinging of the pendulum between having asylums where families checked in the “family embarrassment” and left them there for years, and the idea that you’re free to be as ill as you are and you don’t need any medication, go out and do as you please as long as you’re not suicidal or homicidal, there’s got to be a middle ground in there. 

That middle ground about how you address medications and stability is something that would much better be served through a more vibrant mental health system — but it isn’t — and so it becomes an issue for the criminal justice system.

I’ve dealt with more mental health issues than anyone else. It’s finding the way to sort of streamline and recognize there is no other way to do it so we need to dedicate and provide these services because it’s the best chance to avoid recidivism and, particularly in youthful offenders, it’s the best chance to get involved early and change a direction.

I would like to see us develop a young offenders court. I think there’s a myriad of issues for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds running afoul of the law and they know what they’re doing is not better but many times … you realize their conduct is as much about survival than anything else. 

There are a lot of needs there, and young men need other men that are willing to invest in them. And they also need to be oriented toward job solutions and guided help, mentored help and maybe guided toward getting their GED or a job skill.

We get a lot of youthful offenders and we get a lot of programs for them in terms of keeping their record clear. But given an 18-year-old with a pretty serious felony, a first-offender sentence — tell him he needs to pay his fine and not get in trouble but not digging any deeper to realize that he has limited education, that he is in an environment in that if he doesn’t have some other people in his life other than his running buddies, his chances of success are very slim.

I would love to see an accountability court that could add a layer of mentoring young folks and aim at getting them through that first offender sentence without a record but in the process equipping them with some life skills, not just survival skills.