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Early voting opens Monday, forum to feature judicial candidates

On the same day early voting begins in the hotly contested race for Judge of Superior Court of the South Georgia Circuit, the three judicial candidates will face off in a political forum at Roddenbery Memorial Library.
Early voting opens Monday, May 2 at 8 a.m. at the Grady County Board of Registrars Office, 24 Third Ave. N.E., and then at 7 p.m. in the library’s auditorium candidates Mike Bankston, Ryan Cleveland, and Heather Lanier will participate in a live political forum hosted by WGRA Radio.
The threesome are vying to fill the seat of Chief Judge A. Wallace Cato who chose not to seek re-election.
With the start of early voting, the campaign is heating up and Bankston will likely be called on to answer questions concerning his arrest for driving under the influence on Dec. 16, 2015 in Mitchell County.
Veteran criminal law attorney Gilbert J. Murrah has launched a newspaper advertising campaign against Bankston in which he publicly questions Bankston’s candidacy for Superior Court Judge.
Murrah’s newspaper ad appears on Page A2 of this issue and is being published in other newspapers within the South Georgia Judicial Circuit, which in addition to Grady includes Mitchell, Decatur, Baker and Calhoun counties.
The May 24 nonpartisan election also features the first female to seek a superior court judgeship in this circuit, Heather Lanier.
Ryan Cleveland is remembered by many local residents for his spirited campaign to unseat District Attorney Joe Mulholland in 2008.
According to Jeff Lovett of WGRA-790-AM, each candidate will be given an opportunity to make an opening and closing statement and will be asked questions by Lovett, who will serve as moderator as well as from members of the audience.
“Because of the increased attention that this election has caused, we felt that it was important to hold this particular forum during the evening instead of during our usual lunchtime slot,” Lovett said.  “This is a very important decision to be made by the voters of the South Georgia Circuit since the Superior Court Judge not only presides over many criminal and civil matters throughout the year, but makes decisions that affect everyone in the community.  And although the Superior Court Judges tend to serve on the bench, often unchallenged once elected, this is a very pivotal decision for local voters so we want people to be as informed about these candidates as possible,” the radio station owner said.
Lovett says the forum will be broadcast live on 790-AM and will also be streamed live on the station’s website beginning at 7 p.m. next Monday night.
Mike Bankston currently serves as the chief assistant district attorney for the South Georgia Judicial Circuit, a post he has held since July 2008. During that time he has been in charge of the prosecution of the more serious cases in the circuit, including murder, rape, armed robbery and child molestation.
In private practice for 23 years in Camilla, Bankston started his legal career with James C. Brim Jr. In 1987, he began practicing with Frank C. Twitty Jr., ultimately becoming partner in the Offices of Twitty and Bankston.
His private practice clients included GFA Peanut Association, The Bank of Camilla, Planters and Citizens Bank and the Development Authorities of the City of Camilla and Mitchell County, as well as the cities of Camilla, Sale City, Newton and Baconton.
Bankston also served eight years as the State Court Judge of Mitchell County.
He is a graduate of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and Georgia Southwestern College, Bankston earned his law degree from Mercer University School of Law. He has been an active member of the State Bar of Georgia since 1985.
He is married to Taylor Dunn Bankston and they have four children. The Bankstons are active members of Baconton United Methodist Church where he serves as chairman of the church council.
Ryan Cleveland is the owner of The Cleveland Law Firm, P.C., in Bainbridge and has argued cases in federal, state and superior court in various circuits and counties. Currently, he serves as the Decatur County Solicitor General and Bainbridge City Solicitor.
Cleveland served as an assistant district attorney under District Attorney Joe Mulholland, whom he unsuccessfully challenged in 2008.
The judicial candidate is a 2005 graduate of Mercer Law School where he served as president of the Federalist Society. Cleveland graduated from Brigham Young University in 1997 and received a master’s degree in Public Administration in 1999.
During his tenure with the D.A.’s office, he served as drug prosecutor, responsible for coordinating and training local law enforcement in an effort to combat the Methamphetamine epidemic.
He and his wife, Janell, have been married for 16 years and have three children.
Heather Hendricks Lanier, a life-long resident of Baker County, is currently the deputy chief assistant district attorney for the Dougherty County Judicial Circuit in Albany.
Lanier has worked as an attorney since 2004, and also previously served as a senior assistant district attorney in the South Georgia Judicial Circuit.
 In addition to her prosecutorial positions, Lanier has worked as an intern in the private law firm of Powell and Waters in Camilla and worked in the Clerk’s Office in Baker County.
 In recognition of her professional achievement and public service, she has been named as one of Southwest Georgia’s 40 under 40 and has received numerous prosecutorial awards.
Lanier earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and received an academic scholarship to attend law school at Mercer University. She has prosecuted numerous types of cases from capital murder, armed robbery and aggravated assault to rape and organized crime. Lanier is certified to practice in federal courts where she prosecuted local criminal cases under the Project Safe Neighborhood initiative. Recently, she argued before the Georgia Supreme Court.
Heather and her husband, Michael Lanier, a local businessman and life-long Baker County resident, reside in Baker County with their three daughters, ages nine, six, and two. They attend Newton Baptist Church and Lakeside Baptist Church in Newton.
Early voting will run from Monday, May 2 through Friday, May 20 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. One day of Saturday voting will take place on Saturday, May 14 from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. All early ballots are cast at the Board of Registrars Office and not at the courthouse.
The nonpartisan election will be held on Tuesday, May 24 when all 13 county polling places will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.
With the recent death of Richard Kuhne, a candidate for Grady County Commission District 3, the superior court judge race is the only contested local election on the May 24 ballot. Kuhne and Keith Moye were both running as republicans for the District 3 commission seat being vacated by the retiring Charles Norton.

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