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Probate judge hopefuls differ on proposals
Dan Sammons

Patti Cornett, Hall County's Probate Court judge since 1993, said she knows as an elected official to "expect the unexpected every four years."

Still, after being the unchallenged incumbent on the ballot for two election cycles, Cornett was surprised when local attorney Dan Sammons told her he would be running for her job.

"It's a shocker," Cornett said with a laugh. "But I think it's good for me, because campaigning puts you back in touch with the people you're there to help in the first place."

Sammons, a well-known private practice attorney in Gainesville, has surprised some of his fellow lawyers with his campaign for probate judge, which administers estates, oversees involuntary committals and appointments of guardianships, and issues marriage licenses and gun permits, among other duties.

Sammons said he was ready to "put my 30 years of law practice to good use in a judgeship capacity."

"I feel with my experience I could bring greater efficiency and professionalism to the position and help probate court make a greater contribution to the overall efficiency of the court system in Hall County," Sammons said.

Sammons said he wants to take the load off judges in other courts by taking on the additional responsibilities of presiding over traffic cases and preliminary hearings. He said adding those duties may require local legislation.

"If we could do that, we could delay the necessity of adding other personnel, other judges and staff at a savings of money to the taxpayers," Sammons said.

Cornett said her opponent's proposals are not possible. She said a probate judge can't exercise such duties once state courts and magistrate courts have been established.

"You would have no jurisdiction," Cornett said. "You just can't do it, unless they change the law for the whole state."

Cornett also questioned whether adding responsibilities for Hall County's sole probate judge is feasible.
"If you did that, you'd have to hire another probate judge to handle all the regular duties," she said.

"There's just not as much time as he thinks he might have."

For her part, Cornett said she wants to institute a new "court visitors" program that would see trained volunteers check in on the welfare of adult wards of the state that are incapacitated and cared for under guardianships.

She also wants to upgrade the technology in her office, one of the last courts to be computerized, with many documents still only available in hard copy form.

Sammons said he would put some disputes that come to the court on a fast track by only recommending mediation if the parties are agreeable.

"The present practice is that everything is referred to mediation," Sammons said. "I don't think its fair to participants to have to undergo that delay and additional expense. I'm not bashful about making decisions."

Cornett said mediation is a useful tool for the court that allows parties to vent their differences before they appear before a judge again.

"It narrows the issues and gets them more on point, which is beneficial to them and the judge," she said. "A lot of them don't settle at mediation, but they get all of that venom out. Mediation was put in place for a very good reason, and all the judges saw a need for it."

Sammons estimates he has twice the years of experience as a lawyer than Cornett. But Cornett said its her experience as probate judge that matters in the race.

"You walk into that office and you just don't have any idea what you're stepping into," she said. "I have the experience that only comes with doing this. You cannot go to school and learn how to do this. They will not teach it to you in law school."

Sammons said he could handle the learning curve. "I have not handled a lot of matters in probate court, but I think the procedures are fairly streamlined and set forth," he said. "They're not difficult to grasp."

"I think I've got the initiative and energy to bring those changes that will increase the efficiency of the courts and give the taxpayers a little relief," Sammons said.

Cornett hopes for another four years at a job she says she loves. "I think I have a real understanding, and frankly, a sympathy for the problems people have," Cornett said. "I just have a passion for what I do."

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