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4 probate hopefuls tout legal experience

Probate judges serve as administrator on court dockets

POSTED: July 27, 2012 11:30 p.m.

Chances are, many voters don’t know what a county probate judge does.

Four Republican candidates seeking votes to fill that role in Hall County say they find they have to explain what happens at probate court before asking for voters’ support.

In fact, each has vowed to spend more time educating the public about probate court if they win Tuesday’s primary.

In Georgia, probate courts are responsible for processing wills, administering estates, appointing guardianships for minors and incapacitated adults, and issuing firearm and marriage licenses.

The probate judge is elected countywide to a four-year term. Incumbent Judge Pattie Cornett is not seeking re-election.

With only Republicans running, the winner of Tuesday’s primary, or a subsequent runoff, will earn the post.

Four attorneys are vying for the spot: Susan D. Brown, Brook Davidson, Patty Walters Laine and Lisa Maniscalco.

With each candidate having experience practicing probate law, all are trying to convince voters they have the right kind of experience to best fill the position.

Brown, 48, touts 23 years of legal experience, including 20 years managing a family practice, Susan D. Brown and Associates.

Brown notes that while most probate cases are not contested, she has handled 1,200 contested cases, some of them probate cases.

That courtroom experience is especially necessary for probate judges, Brown said.

“Extensive courtroom practice gives insight into evaluating the credibility of parties, experience weighing opposing views and the ability to clearly and concisely identify issues, all of which I think are important to the role a judge,” she said.

Beyond responsibilities of conducting hearings and making decisions, a judge is also responsible for serving as administrator of court dockets, staff and the budget.

Brown said her experience managing her practice has prepared her for that role.

“In addition to litigating cases, I mediate cases for others, manage a staff, manage firm calendars and finances, interact with clients, and answer the phone if my staff is busy,” she said.

Brown said current management of the probate court is lacking, noting that boxes of files are left on the office floor. She vows to get the court better organized.

At 32, Davidson is the youngest of the candidates, but she boasts of “more experience” in probate courts than other candidates.

She backs that claim by pointing out that she is the only “full-time probate lawyer.” Davidson is currently an attorney with Andrew, Merritt, Reilly and Smith, where she represents clients in probate courts throughout Northeast Georgia.

“The practice of probate law is a passion to which I have dedicated my entire professional life,” she said.

Davidson said probate, with its focus on family circumstances, is very personal for those involved. For her, one of the paramount responsibilities involves administration of guardianships and conservatorships of minor children and incapacitated adults.

Davidson notes that through personal and professional experience she is very familiar with the subject.

“My private practice representing fiduciaries in this position, and serving as a fiduciary myself, put me in a unique position to ensure that minors and incapacitated adults are afforded the proper care and support that they deserve,” she said.

Her experience in other courts as well as in Hall County, she said, gives her a good perspective on best practices of how to run a court, she said.

“I’ve seen things that work in other court and that don’t work,” she said.

For Laine, 37, having lived in Hall County for nearly her entire life is a source of pride.

In the last 10 years, Laine has been in private practice locally, handling estate planning and probate cases.

“This shows that I have the knowledge, experience and compassion that make me the overall best qualified candidate for probate court judge,” she said.

While arguing that she has the skills and background to become an effective judge, much of Laine’s platform is focused on providing a better experience for residents who use the court’s services.

“I can improve customer service and offer a more compassionate and efficient experience,” she said.

If elected, Laine said she would address complaints of poor service she says are common for the local probate court, including frustrations with the court’s reputation handling phone calls and a cumbersome process for obtaining a weapons carry license.

Laine said residents often complain they can’t get a live person to answer their calls. That’s an issue she would address, she said, through a combination of more technology and using a live person to answer phones.

Additionally, Laine promises to create easy-to-read pamphlets for citizens that explain protocol for probate issues, particularly those relating to the legal process after a loved one dies.

“When someone passes away,” she said, “you need to know the process.”

Lisa Maniscalco, 49, disputes the claim that Hall County Probate Court needs major administrative and customer service reform.

For the past eight years, Maniscalco has served as the court’s administrator.

“Overall I have found the Probate Court to be efficiently run, knowledgeable, friendly and competent,” she said.

Manicasclo said she has heard complaints about the phones, but contends that a judge would have little control of Hall County Courthouse’s phone service.

Instead, she promises to focus on the role running the court and educating the public about their options.

“My priority is hearing cases and getting the people what they need,” she said.

Maniscalco said her role as administrator gives her a better understanding of how the court works than her opponents get as attorneys in private practice.

“Unlike my competitors, I need no on-the-job training for this position,” she said. “I have been working closely with the staff over the years and I know their strengths and weaknesses.”


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