Lisa Lott, Superior Court judge for the Western Judicial Circuit, told a gathering of Oconee County Democrats last month that her first months in office have been a wonderful experience.
“It has been great. It has been absolutely great,” Lott said. “It has really been a dream come true.”
Lott’s upbeat and spirited discussion of her nearly 10 months in office turned critical in response to questions, when she said the budget cuts proposed by Gov. Brian Kemp would “devastate our Judicial Circuit” and also said both Clarke and Oconee counties have a serious gang problem.
Lott was speaking at the September meeting of the Oconee County Democrats, and the party will host Michael Thurmond, former Georgia labor commissioner and current chief executive officer of DeKalb County, at its October meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Bogart Library.
Thurmond will talk about his recently reissued book, “A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History.” Thurmond grew up in Athens-Clarke County and was elected to represent that county in the Georgia General Assembly
The only election on the ballot this fall is in Watkinsville, where turnout on the first day of early voting on Monday was very light. Only 18 persons, or less than 1 percent of the city’s 2,209 registered voters, cast a ballot, according to Fran Leathers, director of Elections and Registration for the county.
Praise For Oconee
Lott began her presentation by talking about her election last year, when she defeated Regina Quick, who had been appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to fill the unexpired term of retiring Superior Court Judge David Sweat.
|Lott On Oconee County|
“I do want to make clear that I was running because I wanted to make sure the community had a voice in who was their judge,” Lott said. “Local control and the ability of the community to decide who their judge is, was, as you know, my utmost concern.
Quick was seeking election to the judgeship for the first time.
Lott took office in January. Elections are nonpartisan, and the term of office is four years.
The Western Judicial Circuit, consisting of Clarke and Oconee counties, has four judges, and Lott is the only one who lives in Clarke County.
Her office, however, is in Oconee County, while the other three judges have their offices in Clarke County.
“I love being in the Oconee County Courthouse,” Lott said. “It’s a fabulous place. For all of you who pay taxes here, you just need to know, they’re very well spent over there. It is beautifully staffed.”
Lott praised Angie Johnson, the clerk of courts, whom Lott said was “absolutely fantastic,” and the Sheriff’s Office, saying the deputies she works with in the Courthouse are “just amazing.”
Back And Forth
Lott said that while her main office is in the Courthouse in Watkinsville she has a small office in Clarke County as well.
|Lott On Service|
“It is a little closet,” she said. “It has my name on the door. We usually have a piece of paper taped to it that says ‘Judge Lott is in Oconee County this week’.”
“We do go back and forth a lot,” Lott said, “and it is very important to me to go back and forth a lot.”
“I don’t want people waiting too long to get to court,” Lott said, “particularly, of course, criminal defendants who are waiting in jail just to come into court. “
“I don’t have an agenda,” Lott said. “I want to do the best job that I can for the people of Clarke and Oconee counties and represent them to the best of my ability. And be accessible as a judge.”
Lott said the Courthouse “should be a place where people are not afraid to go into that building and ask for justice for whatever it is that they need. I guess if I had to outline or define a mission, that would be my mission.”
Question On Budget Cut
Lott spoke for a little less than 15 minutes, but she took questions for another 25 minutes.
One of those questions was about the proposed budget cuts ordered by Gov. Brian Kemp for state agencies, including the public defenders offices in Superior Courts around the state.
“The Public Defenders Offices across the state have been told they have to make a 7 percent cut effective Oct. 1,” Lott said. Lott served as chief assistant for the Public Defender Office before she was elected Superior Court Judge.
“You need to understand that Clarke County in particular, but Oconee County falls into this too, has a very large indigent population,” Lott said. “Clarke County, as you know, is one of the poorest counties per capita in the country.
“And so the Public Defenders office in Clarke County represents, I don’t know, probably 85 to 90 percent of every criminal defendant,” Lott said. “And the number is not as high probably in Oconee but it is high in Oconee. Criminal defendants in Oconee, the majority of them is repesented by the Public Defenders Office.”
“A 7 percent cut comes in, it is going to devastate our Judicial Circuit,” Lott said. “The issue is that our Judicial Circuit, honestly, and I don’t mean to exaggerate, could literally fall apart. It could be such a disaster if those cuts take place.”
Lott said the Governor’s Office has said some counties will qualify for an exemption to the cuts, and “I’m hoping that somebody who has authority can put this Judicial Circuit in that in that exemption.”
Gangs And Crime
In response to another question, Lott said many of the criminal cases that come before her in court are the result of drugs.
|Lott On Gangs|
“I have a lot of gang cases, or cases that are related to gangs,” Lott added, “and a lot of those crimes, happen in Oconee County.
“I don’t know whether the gangs come to Oconee County, I don’t know, but crimes that are committed by gang members are happening in Oconee County, as they are all over the country,” Lott continued.
“But there is a huge gang problem in the state of Georgia. Absolutely enormous,” Lott siad. “They’re in schools. They’re on the streets. In the neighborhoods.”
Lott said that Fulton County has a gang related accountability court that she thinks the Western Circuit should consider.
The Georgia Accountability Court Program allows for the establishment of these courts as an alternative to sentencing for nonviolent offenders and a way to reduce the state's prison population.
Hunsinger On Drug Enforcement
Mike Hunsinger, candidate for Oconee County Probate Court Judge, was in the audience when Lott spoke, and Lott referred a question on drug enforcement to him. He was invited to speak after Lott left the podium.
Hunsinger is deputy chief for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, and he said for 20 years of his career he worked in drug enforcement.
“We need to look at it as a public health issue, more so than as a crime issue,” Hunsinger said of drug use. “And the relationship as far as crime goes to drugs is the fact that people who are involved in drugs and they get to the point that they are addicted, they go to commit other crimes.”
Hunsinger said the law passed in the last legislative session allowing for the growing of hemp in the state created problems for drug enforcement because there was no test for the difference between marijuana and hemp.
“We don’t really mess with misdemeanor marijuana, It’s just not worth it,” Hunsinger said of Athens-Clarke County. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
David Anglin, the current Oconee County Probate Court Judge, is retiring. The nonpartisan election will be in May.
I was out of town and could not attend the Democratic Party meeting on Sept. 19.
I asked Ann Stoneburner, who planned to attend the meeting, to video record the meeting. She agreed, and that video is below.
Other commitments and meetings kept me from writing about the Sept. 19 meeting until now.
Stoneburner told me she counted 25 people in the audience. The meeting took place at the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce in Watkinsville.
Melissa Hopkinson, co-chair of the Democratic Party, introduced Lott at 15:08 in the video.
Lott began taking questions at 29:25.
Hunsinger made his comments at 53:45 in the video.