The election between Superior Court Judge Carlisle Overstreet and challenger Willie Saunders has raised questions about the relevance of a judge’s personal life.
The issue started when Augusta attorney Jack Long filed a formal complaint with the state board of elections stating that Saunders’ failure to pay federal taxes disqualified him for running for public office. Long has acknowledged that he is friends with Overstreet, but he said that was unrelated to his challenge.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp eventually ruled that although Saunders owes more than $159,000 in federal taxes, his bankruptcy repayment plan meets the state law standard and he is qualified to run for office.
Saunders, who has been a juvenile court judge for six years, said he’s embarrassed by the attention to his bankruptcy, which he doesn’t consider relevant to the election. From his perspective, private financial issues do not affect how he handles his cases.
“I try to treat everyone with respect. I have no hidden agendas,” Saunders said.
Overstreet said voters should consider the decisions judges make in their private lives and how they deal with certain issues.
“They’re still going to be the same person,” he said.
Asked to clarify, he said that was not a direct reference to Saunders.
Both candidates share a vision of using their position for social reform.
Saunders envisions a collaboration with the community that addresses the roots of crime before one is ever committed. He said his six years on the bench mediating family issues and providing correction to young men and women have given him an intimate picture of how a dysfunctional home life contributes to delinquency.
“You can literally see this evolution,” Saunders said. “Neglected children evolve to be truant children … which evolves into delinquent acts, and that evolves into criminal activity.”
Saunders proposes developing community programs for young men that emphasize the importance of education and encourage them to stay in school.
Overstreet, the chief judge of the Augusta judicial circuit, said he has witnessed the evolution of the legal system over his 20 years on the Superior Court bench. More mandatory and minimum sentences have come into play, and the district attorney’s office provides more input on delivering a sentence. Ultimately, though, it still comes down to the judge, and Overstreet said he weighs the societal effects of locking away a defendant for life as much as the punishment aspect.
“There’s a moral decision that follows behind the law. Judges are more involved in those things,” Overstreet said.
Accountability courts have developed under Overstreet’s watch. Drug court, for instance, focuses on treating addiction through intense probation and counseling as opposed to a jail sentence.
Overstreet points to his record of fiscal responsibility and streamlining court services as a reason to keep him on the bench.
“My record is open,” he said.