Three candidates are running for the nonpartisan probate judge seat in Long County. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the May 24 election, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff July 26.
The seat is open because the current probate judge, Marie Middleton, is not seeking re-election.
The following profiles are paraphrased based on email responses to questions given to the candidates that discussed their backgrounds, the importance of the job, and what they intend to do if elected.
Rita Simmons Deen
Rita Deen, 47, is the daughter of Bobby and Lillian Simmons, a retired Long County tax commissioner. Deen was born and raised in Long County and has lived there most of her adult life.
She graduated from Long County High School in 1987 and moved to Brunswick, where she met her husband, Leslie. They have two children.
In Brunswick, she worked for the clerk of Superior Court under Michael Harrison. Deen then moved to Ludowici and worked at Hinesville Bank. She became a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her second child.
Deen eventually took a position at Ludowici Bank as head teller and customer service representative and is currently employed at Dunham Enterprises Inc.
Deen wrote that her qualifications for probate judge come from her work at the Glynn County Clerk of Superior Court and supervising other employees.
"As customer service representative with the bank, I assisted numerous customers in preparing for final arrangements of their affairs, appointing beneficiaries and filing the proper paper work," she wrote.
"I also worked with the probate court in matters pertaining to opening and managing conservatorship accounts," she added.
The most important job of probate court is "first and foremost upholding the law," Deen wrote.
"Assisting people with the final affairs of a loved one. If the deceased left a will, making sure that the individual’s final wishes are carried out," she added.
On representing all county residents, Deen wrote, "I promise to treat all individuals the same not showing partiality to any particular group."
"If elected I will do everything I can to make sure that the office is operated as efficient as possible at the lease expense to the taxpayers of this county," she added.
When it comes to initiatives she will champion if elected, Deen wrote, "the probate office, the few times I have needed its assistance, seems to be very knowledgeable, well equipped and ready to serve the public at any given time. My plan is to keep it that way."
Teresa L. Odum
Teresa Odum, 46, is the daughter of Edward and Dorcas Pitts and Billy and Delane Brown. She is married to Murray Odum, and they have two children and three grandchildren.
Odum is a 1987 graduate of Long County High School and has an Associate of Applied Science in paralegal studies from Savannah Technical College. She wrote that she also has 51 credit hours of law courses and will obtain a bachelor’s in public leadership in December from Mercer University.
She has a number of certifications, she said, including being certified in electronic filing in the federal court system as well as Georgia’s superior and state courts.
Odum has 28 years of legal experience, including working for more than 10 years as a paralegal for Long County State Court Judge Richard Phillips and more than six years at the district attorney’s office.
"I currently work as a paralegal for John E. Pirkle, where I have been employed since 2010," she wrote. "In addition, I worked for other attorneys such as James B. Durham, the late Renee Kemp and the late Gary A. Bacon."
Odum wrote that she is a native and lifelong resident of Long County and an active member of her community.
"I currently serve as the Secretary and on the Board of Directors for the Long County Chamber of Commerce," she wrote. "I have been the Chairman and organizer for the Long County Christmas Parade for the past several years."
She said that her 28 years of experience in the judicial system qualify her to be probate judge.
"During that time I have personally prepared the petitions, pleadings and other documents that are filed in Probate and Magistrate Court," Odum wrote. "I am experienced in researching the law and attending hearings.
"Most importantly," she added, "I have 28 years of working within a legal environment. That is experience working with people during a difficult time or crisis and helping them navigate the judicial system."
Odum wrote, "Probate Court is important because it affects the lives of the citizens of this County."
Because of the court’s impact on the distribution of estates, "we need a Probate Judge with the legal background and experience to ensure these matters are handled properly and in accordance with the law," she wrote.
"I will represent all the residents of Long County with dignity and professionalism," Odum wrote. "I will work with and for the people of this County and perform the duties to the very best of my ability and in accordance with the law," she added.
An initiative she would like to champion if elected is updating the court’s technology.
"By using technology we can increase productivity and efficiency," she wrote. "It allows public records to be accessible online and the different branches of the judicial system can communicate and transmit documents via electronic means. I believe in using technology to our advantage and I feel it would be beneficial for the productivity of the Probate Court office."
Robert Smith, 33, is the son of Robert and Harriett Smith, who "have been the caregivers for countless children for the past 33 years through the (Division of Family and Children Services and Department of Juvenile Justice) systems. This has truly allowed me to see life from many view points, and realize that we all must always be willing to help one another."
He is a graduate of Long County High School with honors and has bachelors’ degrees in political science and law and society from Armstrong State University.
Smith has worked within the judicial system for 15 years, including having "worked and interned for judges in the Probate, State, and Juvenile Courts," he wrote. "I have been an advocate for abused and neglected children for 15 years. I have worked alongside lawyers in many capacities."
He currently sits on the Long County Family Connections Board and has participated in other boards in the county, he wrote. Smith has also volunteered for a number of programs, including Relay for Life, Long County C.A.R.E.S. and the Long County Recreation Department.
"I firmly believe I cannot ask for support from the people of Long County if I have not been supporting or working for the people of Long County before now!" he wrote.
Smith added that, "everything in my background makes me qualified for this job." In addition to his education and experience, he wrote that "most importantly," he has "‘common sense’ and the ‘people skills’ to do this job."
"I desire to keep integrity, principles, desire, and faith in Long County’s Probate court," he added.
"The most important job that the Probate court does is dealing with people," Smith wrote. Treating people equally "is what is most important to me: being able to serve the people through law and make a positive difference.
"My grandmother instilled in me the belief that no one is better than anyone and I truly believe that," he wrote. "I will represent them by listening to them and doing my best to understand their needs and applying the law as it is needed."
If elected, Smith wrote, he would like to update the technology in the court office.
"I would like to make it where our files are backed up onto a cloud and then files will be much easier to store and easier to share with the Clerk’s office," he wrote. "My desire is to make sure that our Probate office is run the most efficient as possible and the most cost effective as possible," he added.