Experience counts in probate judge contest

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Studebaker and Johnson face off

By Emily Pollok

Two candidates with experience working in Lancaster County Probate Court are competing for the probate judge’s seat in the Nov. 6 election.
Democrat Crystal B. Johnson, a customer service representative for Springs Global, is running against Republican Dee Studebaker, Lancaster County’s associate probate judge.
Johnson, a lifelong resident of Lancaster County, has 25 years of experience working for the county’s probate court, after starting her career there in 1990. She was hired as a legal clerk before moving up the ranks to associate probate judge.
Johnson said she was fired three years ago after complaining to current Probate Judge Sandra Estridge that some cases were not being handled expeditiously. Estridge did not run for re-election this year.
“When I started in the probate court, there were only two people in the probate court for everybody in Lancaster County, and that was me and Sandra Estridge,” Johnson said Thursday night at the Indian Land Action Committee candidate forum. “We did everything in the office…
“My feeling is that all the people in the probate court should know everything that goes on in the probate court.”
Studebaker, originally from Arkansas, moved to Lancaster County five years ago.
“I did not grow up here, but I did pick this place to live,” she said.
The associate probate judge has been a lawyer for 24 years and has been in her current role for two years.
“The campaign’s going great,” Studebaker said. “I can see that there’s a large group of supporters that’s continuing to grow. I’m humbled by their willingness to trust me.”
Studebaker has been hosting workshops to educate people on the main areas of probate court jurisdiction and essential estate-planning documents.
Studebaker says she is more qualified than her opponent because she has a law degree.
“I was recruited by the existing probate judge as an associate probate judge because I have a legal education and a legal background,” Studebaker said at the ILAC forum.
She argues that a law degree is necessary, due to the increasing complexity of estates and estate-planning documents resulting from the growing number of people moving to Lancaster County from other states.
Johnson, who has an associate’s degree in business from USCL, also addressed the issue at the forum.
“You can have all the legal education that you have, but I’ve been there from the bottom up with the changes in the law, and I’ve worked through it and learned it on my own,” she said.
Studebaker also asserted that she is more prepared than her opponent for the role of probate judge.
Over the past year, Studebaker has served on a committee with the S.C. Association of Probate Judges, rewriting legal documents relating to Article 5 of the S.C. Probate Code. The new law will be implemented Jan. 1.
“I did this to learn and to prepare myself because the law was changing,” Studebaker said. “I want people to know that I’m ready to hit the ground running.”
Johnson said her people skills would be an important asset as probate judge.
“I’ve always believed that the probate process should not be a daunting or intimidating process for our residents,” she said. “When I deal with people in the court, I’m treating them like I would treat my mother or my grandmother. You’ve got to have people that are willing to get in there and take that extra step and make it easier for them.”
Studebaker agreed that this is an important aspect of the job, and said she would be professional, impartial and compassionate if elected.

Candidate Profiles

Probate Judge – Crystal B. Johnson

Party: Democrat
Age on Election Day: 54
Family: Husband, Bart Johnson; daughters, Amber and Jade; and two grandchildren
Education: Associate degree in business from USC Lancaster
Occupation: Customer service representative, Springs Global, US                                     
What do you see as the biggest issues facing the probate court? Accountability is the biggest issue. Accountability applies to the probate judge, the associate probate judge, court staff, fiduciaries appointed by the court and attorneys practicing in the probate court. The second issue is the availability of probate court case files. 

How do you intend to deal with those issues? I plan to provide workshops for fiduciaries and also for legal assistants new to probate practice, to familiarize them with the responsibilities and duties owed to the probate court. 
I plan to make court case files available online so that attorneys and fiduciaries may view and print documents from a file. This is necessary for the fiduciaries who live out of town or who cannot make it to the court during normal business hours.

Probate Judge – Dee Studebaker

Party: Republican

Age on Election Day: 51
Family: Married to Tim Studebaker, with a son in college and a son in high school
Education: Bachelor’s degree in communication, University of Arkansas, 1990; law degree, University of Arkansas, 1993 
Occupation: Associate probate judge, small-business owner, artist and attorney                                      
What do you see as the biggest issues facing the probate court? Innovative leadership and professional direction are critical.  Our ever-increasing growth, more complex contested cases, a steady influx of people moving from other states, the need for advanced planning and maintaining family harmony are also important issues. Modern technology brings new creatures called digital assets and electronic estate planning tools. When misunderstood or misused, these can create unintended consequences wreaking havoc for families. In January a new law brings significant changes and unfamiliar legal documents. 
How do you intend to deal with those issues? I’m an open and creative person and believe education and family harmony are important. My professional training and real-world experience will help me handle our contested and ever-growing docket. I am responsive and know how to find applicable and up-to-the-minute legal research to provide impartial, clear, consistent and thoughtful rulings. I’ve studied the new S.C. law, written and simplified legal documents with fellow judges statewide, and trained others.