Election 2022: Judge of the State Court

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TBD at Tuesday night’s vote count, the race between challenger Michael J. Classens and incumbent Judge Joseph Cushner to serve as a Bulloch County state court judge for the next four years is officially nonpartisan, but still politically controversial.

It offers two lawyers with quite different qualifications.

Cushner was not elected to the judgeship, but was appointed there by Governor Brian Kemp effective March 2020 following the 2019 retirement of Justice Gary Mikell. Cushner had served just over three years as solicitor general, the attorney for misdemeanor criminal cases handled by the state court, after being elected unopposed in 2016. Prior to that, he served more than six years as an assistant district attorney for the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit. .

Classens was never a judge, but as a general practitioner based in Statesboro for 37 years, he has represented clients in court at the municipal, state, superior, appellate and federal levels, particularly in connection with criminal defense and civil litigation. He previously served as an assistant professor of criminal justice at Georgia Southern University and speaks proudly of his “real world” experience in different jobs dating back to high school.

This week, the newspaper first posed a question to Cushner and Classens:

Herald: What do you think is the deciding issue for voters in choosing between you and (the other candidate) for the position of judge on the State Court of Bulloch County?

Classes: “I hope Bulloch County voters choose their state court judge based on the candidate who has truly earned their trust and respect while gaining experience as an attorney engaged in a broad practice general law. I have been privileged that for so many years, so many citizens have trusted me when they have a legal problem they face. Whether in civil litigation or criminal defense, my goal has always been to protect the legal rights available to everyone in our society.

This, he said, provided him with “real, hands-on experience in dealing with day-to-day issues that regularly come up in state court.”

Cusner: “To be effective, a judge must have the confidence of citizens to make the right decisions. I am the only candidate who has the experience of being a judge and a proven track record in making these decisions. My record as a prosecutor and as a judge demonstrates that I have the ability to balance justice and fairness, ensuring that Bulloch County remains safe while considering the circumstances of each case.

Herald: The reporter had suggested a word limit, and Cushner submitted a shorter response. Classens submitted a longer response. The reporter then suggested that Cushner could expand on his response related to his experience and gave him the opportunity to respond to a comment from Classens.

The following is taken from their responses and another statement Classens made in anticipation of Cushner’s response. Everything was done by email.

Classes“Likewise, my work experience outside of the legal profession is relevant, in that I understand the circumstances these citizens face, as I have faced them myself.

“The ‘real world’ experience doesn’t come from classrooms and lecture halls, it comes from living and working in a community, earning a living that depends on your output at work, and facing the dilemmas of everyday life.”

After working in construction and building materials, retail and teaching at Georgia Southern for seven years, Classens “learned more about the important things in life than can fit in a textbook,” said he declared.

Cusner: “As Solicitor General, I have prosecuted more than 15,000 cases, each making the singular choice of how best to bring justice to victims of crime and to hold accountable those who appear in them accused of violating the law.

“As a judge, I had to make hundreds of these decisions in criminal and civil cases. This experience and proven track record are just a few of the reasons I have the trust and support of Bulloch County prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, civil attorneys and business leaders.

Now an election

Classes: “I want the people of Bulloch County to elect their own state court judge, rather than having a judge receive an appointment based on political patronage. That was my intention in 2020, when I announced my intention to qualify for this seat on the Wednesday immediately before qualifying. Later that same week, before a single citizen had had a chance to make their choice, their right to vote was removed by the incumbent’s nomination.

Herald: After several local attorneys applied to the state Judicial Nominating Commission seeking to fill the vacancy created by Mikell’s retirement, the commission recommended three candidates to Kemp in early August 2019. Cushner was one of ‘between them. It was originally expected locally that this would be a short-term appointment.

But the governor waited until mid-February 2020 to announce Cushner’s appointment. Due to a delay in state law for appointing judges relative to the election schedule, this prevented a special election in the spring of 2020.

The reporter informed Cushner that Classens called his nomination “based on political patronage” and informed Classens that it had been done.

Cusner: “After Judge Mikell retired, my opponent and I applied to become a judge. The bipartisan judicial nominating committee is responsible for submitting a list of qualified candidates to the governor for consideration. After reviewing our applications and an in-person interview, my application was forwarded to Governor Kemp and my opponent was not. Governor Kemp vetted the nominees, and after an interview with the governor, I had the honor of being nominated and sworn in as a judge of the state court.

Classes: “The JNC (at least in 2019) is made up overwhelmingly of attorneys who have been attorneys for the governor (Deal, Perdue, or Kemp) or worked for ‘Kemp for Governor,’ or who are general counsel for hardware stores, colleges, city attorneys, lobbyists, election law scholars, or Republican legislators, prosecutors, and judges, usually appointed to these positions by a (governor).

“Their ‘verification’ process goes no further than finding out political party affiliation,” he said.

Organic bites

Cushner graduated from Statesboro High School in 2003 and went to the University of Georgia for college and law school. His first job upon returning to Bulloch was an assistant district attorney, responsible for prosecuting felony cases.

Classens graduated from Statesboro High in 1973 as a Bulloch County STAR student. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southern and his law degree from the University of Tennessee. He worked at Smith Supply Company from a week after he graduated from high school until he left for law school.

Classes: “As a Bulloch Countian I have learned that we respect and appreciate people who have earned a living by their own merits. I hope this election provides another example of that ethic and that we elect the only candidate who has earned this privilege through hard work and dedication.

Cusner: “Had the governor decided not to make an appointment, I would gladly have been a candidate for the office of judge in 2020. It was and remains important for me to build on the successes that Judge Mikell and I have had together to ensure that Bulloch County continues to have one of the best state courts in Georgia.

Many voters have already decided, as in-person advance voting ended Friday at 5 p.m. Now, for registered voters who have not yet voted, the 16 traditional polling places in Bulloch County will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 24.

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