2012
07.27

    E-mail interview conducted with Chief Magistrate Judge candidates Bruce Coker, Shelia Thompson, and Michael Yates. Thompson is the current incumbent, appointed last year. Fourth of twelve Q&A’s scheduled before the July 31st vote.

LU: What is your full name, and what name do you generally go by?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: Shelia Juanita Thompson. I go by Shelia.

    YATES: Michael Leon Yates “Michael”

LU: What is your age?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: 61

    YATES: 50

LU: What is your address? (We will only publish the street, not your house number.)

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: Shelia Thompson, [redacted], Rock Spring, GA 30739

    YATES: [redacted] Chris ln. Chickamauga Ga 30707

    Mr. Coker lives on Corinth Rd. in the LaFayette area.

LU: How can voters contact you or stay in touch with your campaign? (Please include info like e-mail, phone, Facebook, Twitter, etc. if applicable.)

LU: How long have you lived in the county, and (if applicable) where else have you lived?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: I have lived in Walker County for 57 years. The first 4 years of my life were lived in Fyffe, Ala.

    YATES: I have lived in Walker County my whole life.

LU: What’s the best thing about living in this community?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: It is family friendly and the people come together to help each other in time of need.

    YATES: The people.

LU: Starting as early as you want, what kind of education do you have?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: I graduated from LaFayette High School. I have over 600 hours of continuing education through the Magistrate Training Council, the Institute of Continuing Judicial Education, and the National Judicial College. All of the continuing education for this position exclusively.

    YATES: I attended Osburn elementary school in Chickamauga, Gordon Lee High School, Jacksonville State University Jacksonville Ala.

    According to his Facebook profile, Mr. Coker was educated “at Linwood Elementary, LaFayette Middle School, LaFayette High School, and Tennessee Wesleyan College.”

LU: Is Chief Magistrate Judge your only job or do you have another occupation? (Thompson only)

    THOMPSON: This is my only occupation.

LU: What is your current occupation? (All except Thompson)

    COKER: [no response]

    YATES: Dalton Truck Inc. Parts counter sales for the last 14 yrs.

    Coker has been a Walker County Sheriff’s deputy for 12 years and worked for a time as a substitute teacher. He is treasurer and “coordinator” for Walker County Stocking Full of Love.

LU: What previous jobs or elected positions have you held?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: My previous jobs were with Bryant Lumbar Company, Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company and the Walker County Court System. I have been in the court since 1979 and a judge since 1983. I have never run for an elected position before now.

    YATES: I worked 16 years with Salem Carpet Mills & Shaw Industries 3 years with Synthetic Industries. Holding Plant positions, Supervisor and management positions. Currently employed at Dalton Truck Inc.

    Coker has never, to our knowledge, held elected office before but he ran for State Senator in 2008 and was beaten badly by incumbent Jeff Mullis.

LU: Do/will aspects of your education or job experiences make you a better judge? If so please explain.

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: My education in the Judicial System has certainly made me a better judge. It has taught me and kept me up to date on the laws as they are added or changed. Through out my working life I have dealt with people from all walks of life, sometimes in very stressful situations. I feel this has given me the ability to look at all the facts before applying the law.

    YATES: The management classes people skill training and on the job problem solving of employees and work logistics has made me a well rounded in handling and solving disputes. As East coast Claims manager for Salem Carpet Mills for 5 years I was responsible for 25 states 7 clerks processed claims for dealers consumers and contractors. I have resolved situations to prevent them form going to small claims court I have dealt with cases in small claims court and worked closely with company attorneys on claims that were in superior court.

LU: Several have asked us exactly what the Chief Magistrate Judge does. In your own words, please explain the duties of this position.

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: The Chief Magistrate assigns cases, sets court sessions, appoints other magistrates (with the consent of the Superior Court judges), sets policy for the Magistrate Court, and settles any disputes between other magistrates of the court. In Walker County the Chief Magistrate is a working judge on a daily basis and is included in the rotation of hearing cases.

    YATES: The Chief Magistrate assigns cases to the other Magistrates of the county. Does first appearance hearings to set bail for people who have been arrested. Approves arrest warrants search warrants and hears civil cases up to $15000. The Magistrate can also hear ordinance violations

    According to the State Courts Administration, the Magistrate Court in each county handles “civil claims of $15,000 or less; certain minor criminal offenses; distress warrants and dispossessory writs; county ordinance violations; deposit account fraud (bad checks); preliminary hearings; and summonses, arrest and search warrants.”
    The Chief Magistrate sets court schedules, hears cases, and appoints all the other magistrate judges for the county. Despite having all that authority and legal oversight, the only requirements to be a Magistrate Judge are one year of residency in the county, at least 25 years of age, and a high school diploma. So any random person who managed to graduate can wander in off the street and become the ultimate overseer of judges and warrants in the county if they can convince enough people to vote for them – that’s completely unacceptable, and the only reason why Mr. Yates or Mr. Coker can qualify to run for this position.

LU: During your time as judge, what would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? (Thompson only)

    THOMPSON: Procedure for Courts are defined and set by the Official Code of Georgia, so we are limited as to what can be changed or altered. That said , my office set up the first Mediation Program in our county and we implemented the use of warrant application hearings prior to legislation requiring hearings.

LU: What would you say is the greatest accomplishment of the sitting Magistrate Judge, and is there anything your opponent has done during her time as judge that you intend to emulate? (All except Thompson)

    COKER: [no response]

    YATES: Nothing stands out to me.
    Emulate? Nothing, but to take advantage of the training and educational classes offered by the justice system and maintain the highest standards of the Magistrates office.

LU: Is there anything from your time as a judge that you regret or wish you could do differently? (Thompson only)

    THOMPSON: I have always made decisions based on the facts of evidence presented to me. I do wish there was some way to convince people to properly prepare their cases using the information available in our office.

LU: What would you say is the biggest failure of the sitting judge, and what actions of your opponent would you have done differently? (All except Thompson)

    COKER: [no response]

    YATES: No comment

LU: What are your priorities for the next four years if you’re reelected/elected?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: Increasing the use of technology to assist in the operation of the court to make it more efficient and user friendly.

    YATES: To be sure the office is operating in a friendly service minded way to help the citizens of Walker County.
    To be sure the office is utilizing new technology to its fullest extent
    To be sure everyone is treated fairly with respect they deserve.

LU: Is there any criteria, philosophy, or overall guideline you will use when deciding cases?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: Guidelines are set out in the Official Code of GA. There is not a check list for deciding a case. Every case has it’s own unique facts. A judge must be familiar with the law as it is written and with the case law interpreting the statutes so that the law is applied fairly, impartially, and uniformly.

    YATES: Make sure that all decisions are based on legal moral and ethical principals and everyone receives a unbiased decision. No favoritism

LU: Do you feel that law enforcement agencies, judges, and prosecutors are held properly accountable under existing state laws, or are reforms needed in those areas? If so what reforms would you like to see put into place?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: There are laws in force to hold these agencies accountable. I do feel these laws should be reviewed occasionally to see if reforms are needed or improvements made.

    YATES: Yes the accountability is there as long as the law is applied. So many times the charges are not pursued for one reason or another.

LU: You are the only candidate for Magistrate Judge with judicial experience or a background in law. How important is that experience to being a good judge? Is it possible that being judge and assistant judge for decades has disconnected you from the way average people work and live? (Thompson only)

    THOMPSON: Having judicial experience has helped me tremendously. I see people of all walks of life. I see people at their best and at their worst. I have been made aware of how attorneys apply their trade. It helps me in that I can look at the facts as presented from every angle. I do not feel disconnected from average people because I am an average person. I have the same challenges, successes and disappointments that people face every day. I have had the bad times with the good times and I rely on those experiences to deal with people every day. That said I still have to apply the law according to the facts presented.

LU: You are running for Probate Court Judge with no judicial experience or legal training. Do you consider a background in law of any importance to being a good judge? Does your real-world experience give you a better connection with the way average people work and live? (All except Thompson)

    COKER: [no response]

    YATES: I am running for Magistrate Judge with no judicial experience. The qualification for Chief Magistrate Judge is a High School education, be 25 years old and a resident of the county for 1 year. If elected you also have to attend 80 hours of training by the Georgia magistrate council. The magistrate does not make the law you just apply the law that was made by the general assembly. A background in law might lessen the research a judge has to do but is not necessary according to the State of Georgia. I am an average person. Never been employed by County or Federal agencies. I am not or never have been a part of the system. The last 34 years I have worked in private industry and made a living to raise my family.

LU: Does a background in law enforcement or private law practice give a judge better perspective on cases, or could it potentially lead to favoritism and discrimination?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: I do not think a background in law enforcement gives a judge better perspective. The only contact law enforcement has with the Magistrate Court is court security, serving process and testifying on cases they are a part of. It does not give you any knowledge about how the office works or how to conduct a hearing, either criminal or civil. As for issuing warrants I feel the potential is there for favoritism depending on the people and circumstances involved. Citizens should be afforded all of the Constitutional protections afforded by law. It should not be on the buddy system.

    YATES: No. The case is what it is. No two cases are the same. You either broke the law or you didn’t Favoritism and discrimination deal directly with the integrity of the person holding the office.

    The potential for abuse with 12-year Walker Sheriff’s Deputy Coker supervising warrants requested by the Walker County Sheriff’s Department is very real, and very scary. Considering how law enforcement officials tend to stick together, having a former officer serving in this capacity – especially with no judicial experience or legal training – is unacceptable. As Judge Thompson said, the legal system shouldn’t become the buddy system.

LU: Please summarize in a single paragraph why residents of Walker County should vote for you in the upcoming election:

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: I am not a career politician like some of the candidates. This position has been my life for many years and it is not just a stepping stone for me until I decide what my next political race will be. If I am successful in this election I am not going to retire before my four year term is up as has been rumored. Maintaining the integrity and fairness of the Magistrate Court so that all citizens are treated fairly is my passion. This is the only career I have chosen and something I have worked for daily for over 28 years. I am the only candidate with ANY experience with the duties and operation of the Magistrate Court. I feel I have been fair and impartial as a judge and will continue to provide the checks and balances that the law requires.

    YATES: As a citizen of walker county for fifty years I think it is time for new people in the county government. Three years ago if you told me I would be running for office I would have told you your crazy. This was put on my heart and I am seeing it thru. I am a man of integrity and will work hard for the citizens of Walker County. Good men have sat back and did nothing for to long, that’s why our country is in the shape it is in. I want to do my part in making our county a place where everyone is treated equal and county government serves the public with respect and dignity. I would appreciate your vote on July 31st

    None of the candidates for Magistrate Judge are exactly “career politicians” – the only one who ever ran for office before is Bruce Coker, and he lost that race. But the point about seeing Magistrate Judge as a stepping stone for higher office may be valid, and should at least be taken into consideration by voters.

LU: Is there anything else voters should know about you? Family, faith, philosophy, inspirations, etc.?

    COKER: [no response]

    THOMPSON: I am married to Terry Thompson and have been for 40+ years. We have 3 children and 2 grandchildren, all of whom we are extremely proud. I have been an active and faithful member of Wood Station Baptist Church for 40+ years. I am also a member of the Auxillary of the Gideon’s International, the Chamber of Commerce, Center Post Community Center, Friends of the Library and am active with Hope Productions. My philosophy is to treat others as I want to be treated. My inspiration is Jesus Christ. I feel I have carried out the duties of the Magistrate Court fairly and impartially as a judge and would ask for your vote. Thank you.

    YATES: I am a member of Oakwood Baptist Church. I believe in right and wrong. I believe people need to take responsibility for what they do. I believe everyone deserves a certain amount of respect

Mr. Coker’s decision not to answer our questions is a continuation of his philosophy towards transparency and cooperation as an employee of the Sheriff’s Office. (We will note that his father passed away last week, which might be part of the non-response.) He’s described as a nice guy by his friends and some co-workers, but anyone who’s ever challenged him on an issue or otherwise run afoul of him would say otherwise. Coker has shown favoritism to fellow police officers in the past – the most well known instance of that is in 2004 when he didn’t arrest LPD officer Sam Parker for domestic abuse because it might damage his friend’s career. Do you really want to appear before him as a judge in a time of crisis, especially if you’ve been accused of something by the Sheriff’s Office?

All that aside, he’s only minimally qualified for the Magistrate position. Coker lobbied hard to be appointed Chief Magistrate in 2011 when Judge Jerry Day retired, but was passed over at the time because of his inexperience – and he’s no more experienced now than he was 18 months ago.

Mr. Yates seems to be well intentioned, but his education and experience also are only minimal for the position. While he’s certainly a nice man, it seems preferable to have a magistrate judge with 29 years of experience oversee the magistrate court instead of someone off the street who’s worked in the carpet industry and sold trucks.

In light of all this, The LaFayette Underground endorses incumbent judge Shelia Thompson to continue as Chief Magistrate for Walker County.

Elections are next Tuesday, July 31. LaFayette residents will vote at the Walker Co Senior Center, voting locations for other residents vary. Early voting is wrapping up today.

THE RULES:

Last week the Underground e-mailed candidates for 12 competitive local races (all except County Surveyor) a series of questions. Candidates who have no opponent on the July ballot were not included; those with opposition in November will be contacted before the November vote.

Candidates were asked to respond to the questions via e-mail by a certain deadline, and were instructed not to share their answers with each other before we made them public. Every candidate in the same race was given the same set of questions except where noted above.

Candidates who did not respond by the deadline have [no response] after their name for each question asked, and candidates who responded but chose to skip certain questions are marked [no response]. Responses received after this point will not be accepted for a full post, but candidates are welcome to add to their responses, answer questions, or respond to our opinions in the comment section below.

Answers are copied directly from e-mail without corrections or changes except for redaction of addresses. Redactions or any editorial clarifications of questions or answers are made in [brackets]. Our thoughts are in italics beneath the responses.

Additional Q&A responses will be posted up until election day.

All LaFayette Underground 2012 Election Posts

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4 comments so far

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  1. In Mr. Coker’s defense his father passed away last Friday and was buried on Sunday. I am unsure as to when the questions were emailed to him, but I can imagine checking email may have been the last thing on his mind.

  2. Kevin: You are correct, we were aware of that and waited several days past the deadline to give Mr. Coker a chance to answer. He was contacted last Thursday afternoon (we had to try three different e-mail addresses to get through) and the answers were posted more than a week later still without a reply from him. We can’t wait any longer, the election is Tuesday regardless of who passes away or what happens in anyone’s personal life.

    We understand from someone else in law enforcement that Coker, Wilson, and Mullinax all declared themselves unwilling to respond regardless, and the election is Tuesday regardless of how long we wait for him to answer. If he contacts us with a response we’ll still plug it in, considering his family situation. I edited the article to mention his father’s passing.

    – LU

  3. Bruce was on the Judy show Thursday night. If his family loss didn’t disrupt that then there’s no excuse for him not answering an e-mail. Sorry folks.

    – LU

  4. Bruce Coker is a joke…always has been always will be…if LaFayette wants to see improvement they should keep people like him out. Period