Veteran probate judge challenged
The office of the probate judge is one visited at disparate times in life. Joyous couples who wish to wed walk the same halls as families divided by death and divorce.
In the same way, the campaign to elect the woman who will wear the robes of probate judge for the next four years has two very different candidates.
Candidates and campaign
The incumbent, Judge Sue Roe, has led a quiet campaign and refused to participate in debates or political forums.
Roe is seeking to continue in the office she has held for 24 years and to continue her work in the Aiken County Courthouse, where the former clerk of court is well into her fifth decade of work.
"I do not want to spend my time countering this woman's accusations," Roe said. "If I needed to tell the people something, I will put it in the paper or speak to groups. But I will not 'debate' her. I will say what I stand for and what I believe in. And what I believe in is service to the people of this county."
"That's who I am," she said. "I feel my reputation speaks for itself. I am a lady. I have always tried to represent myself as a lady."
The person Roe describes as "this woman" is Jane Page Thompson, Roe's opponent in the race.
Thompson brings years of experience from her career in real estate, years of service from her volunteer work and current service from the Aiken County Board of Zoning Appeals, but the most prevalent experience for this campaign which Thompson brings is her experience as a visible and audible part of many conservative political campaigns.
Thompson has attacked Roe at every chance, accusing the judge of cronyism, of running an annual $500,000 deficit and of illegal and unethical acts.
"Is that not what political discourse is?" Thompson asked rhetorically. "Is that not what democracy is? To deny people a redress of their grievances is unconstitutional."
Thompson's focus as Nov. 6 draws closer has been on Roe's budget and spending.
Fiscal conservative Thompson believes the Aiken County Probate Court should not be costing taxpayers $500,000 a year. To combat this, she plans to reduce staff by attrition and get the court back into the marriage business.
Thompson said she believes Aiken County could benefit financially by having marriages conducted in the courthouse. She offers Anderson County as comparison, where their probate court made a profit in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Roe said she believes this idea presents a significant problem. Roe said that "when you know what you are doing, you understand that" the mixing of a jubilant wedding party and a grieving family in the tight quarters of her office is undesirable.
Thompson has also charged Roe with not working as much or as hard as a probate judge should. And that this, too, is the cause of budgetary problems.
"Anderson County's probate judge (Judge Martha Newton) is paid to come to Aiken and do our cases at our hospitals," Thompson said.
Judge Newton does see patients at Aiken Regional's Aurora Pavilion Behavioral Health Services.
Thompson believes that, if elected, she would take over these services to patients who are too sick to travel. She has also proposed to offer evening hours to the outlying communities of Aiken County, including New Ellenton, Wagener and North Augusta. For this, Thompson hopes to utilize space at the libraries in those towns.
Roe defends her record as one of service to her community. To those patients who are unable to travel, she states that it is common practice for specific probate judges to see these people and that this happens statewide.
On local cases, she said, "I held three on Tuesday."
Statistics from the court show that, since 2008, the court has handled an average of eight cases each year with the highest number being 11 hearings in 2011.
Thompson said she believes there needs to be great changes to the office "to save property owners' money."
She wants to modernize court records, offer secure online access for payments and to file documents.
"I bring a modern approach to the probate office," she said. "People need the ability to file forms online, so you don't have to come into the court. This makes things easier on the voter and easier on the probate court."
Roe said she believes her office is "a well-oiled machine" and offers the "very best service." However, she said charges that her office is behind the times are inaccurate.
As an example, Roe cited the S.C. Supreme Court's change from using hard copies of dockets, agendas and opinions. When they went digital, the call went out to courts around the state that they had to do the same.
The judge said she reached out to the county's technical team, and her operation swiftly met the Supreme Court's standard. However, there was a snag when the operation went live.
"We were ready two months ahead of the Supreme Court," she said. "We were the first, if not one of the first, to modernize."
Tom Foolery, the cartoonist, has had a lot to say about the race for probate judge.
The name is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a South Carolina political cartoonist, who, for pay, has taken direct aim at Thompson and many other political figures.
The cartoons have attempted to frame Thompson as a "socialite" and accused her and her campaign staff of underhanded tactics.
"I have a real problem with these," Thompson said of the cartoons.
When interviewed recently, Thompson denied any knowledge of the cartoons or the cartoonist; however, she soon afterward admitted that this was not true, and she was aware of them.
Roe has said she does not know Foolery or his work, nor did she commission it.
"I would never do that," Roe said. "I've never seen one."
Judge Sue Roe
"I have faith in people and know they will use good judgment," Roe said. "If they choose another person, it would be a travesty for Aiken County. I have faith in people. They know how I have served the people."
Roe expects that those whom she has touched in her 24 years as probate judge and 44 years in the Aiken County Courthouse will back her.
Recently, she was endorsed by the Aiken County Board of Realtors, an organization of which Thompson is a member. After a presentation by both candidates, the board gave Roe their backing and a $1,000 campaign contribution.
Jane Page Thompson
"I have the energy and ability to bring some modern efficiency to this office," Thompson said. "I'm willing to work harder and work smarter."
Thompson has rallied her Republican base around her and has received endorsements from some GOP heavy hitters, including U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.