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Leonard, Lovejoy ready for run-off

The runoff election for Troup County State Court is just six days away, pitting prosecutor Kyle Lovejoy against West Point Municipal Court Judge Wesley Leonard. 

Lovejoy and Leonard finished first and second, respectively, in the June 9 election. The margins couldn’t have been much slimmer — Lovejoy received 35% of votes to Leonard’s 33%, with LaGrange Assistant City Court Judge Luther Jones eliminated with 32%.

Georgia’s state courts hear misdemeanors including traffic violations, preliminary criminal hearings and civil matters not reserved for superior courts. They also issue search and arrest warrants. State court judges serve four-year terms and are elected in countywide nonpartisan elections.

“[Misdemeanors] are crimes that people have all been impacted by,” Lovejoy said. “So, there’s an importance to making sure that those are regulated and people are punished if they are committing these crimes, especially if they’re habitually committing these crimes.”

Leonard said he empathizes with business owners who deal with misdemeanor trials.

“I’ve operated a small business myself,” he said. “I know what it like when someone who’s operating a small business has to close shop to come to court to take care of a matter that’s in controversy.”

Lovejoy, a LaGrange native, has been the Troup County Assistant Solicitor since 2004, and touts that experience working for the state court.

“I’ve been in the state court for the past 16 years, every week, and I’ve been involved in just about every trial that has been had in state court on the criminal side,” Lovejoy said.

Leonard, who grew up in the Columbus area, said he has more experience as an attorney — more than 30 years — including litigating in the state court as a defense attorney. Both candidates spoke highly of outgoing Judge Jeannette Little. When asked how the court could be improved, both referenced improving efficiency. The backlog of cases has been made much larger by the pandemic, due to jury trials being suspended.

“We need to have a more efficient plan to make sure that cases get heard as fast as possible, but without treading upon somebody’s due process,” Lovejoy said.

Leonard said long court hours drive up costs for the county and are to the detriment of all parties — plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, law enforcement and court staff.

“A lot of the ladies in the clerk’s office, the public does not know that they’re down there working on Sunday afternoon,” Leonard said of the case load.

Lovejoy spoke about his background as a prosecutor, and how that’s influenced his philosophy.

“I don’t have this criminal background mentality where my first thought is, ‘How can I get this person off?’” Lovejoy said. “I get that’s how criminal defense lawyers have been trained, but that’s not my mentality. My mentality has always been ‘What were the facts and do they meet the elements of a crime?’”

Leonard said he not only has more experience as a lawyer and experience as a judge, but in life generally. In addition to his legal work, he’s sold shoes, worked in a grocery store, driven a truck and worked in a loading dock.

“I understand the struggle of working people,” Leonard said. “I’m not someone that went straight from high school to college to law school without having any life experience.”

For Lovejoy, the first job of a judge is to show respect to everyone in the courtroom – defendants, law enforcement, victims, etc. — as well as to ensure justice. Leonard echoed the importance of respect and said a judge needs to be patient, willing to listen and fair.  

“My vision for the court is for the citizens … to feel like they were heard, and not herded. I don’t want people to feel like they are a number or a file,” Leonard said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that in-person campaigning hasn’t been feasible, leading both candidates to seek other strategies to reach voters.

“The goal was when I decided I wanted to run, I would go out and have meet-and-greet functions and knock on doors and try to shake as many hands as possible,” Lovejoy said. “We’ve had to rely a lot harder on things like social media and word of mouth and videos on Facebook or on the internet.”

Leonard agreed that the campaign has been a real challenge.  Both men are graduates of Mercer Law School. Lovejoy attended the University of Georgia for undergraduate, while Leonard went to Auburn University.