Dougherty County Courthouse, Albany, Georgia. (Photo: Google Maps) Dougherty County Courthouse, Albany, Georgia. (Photo: Google Maps)

Two officials from the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia made it their mission last year to visit their members in every one of the state’s 159 counties. Now, with the death of one of those judges in the new coronavirus pandemic, the journey suddenly provides a cautionary tale about the offices’ openness to the public.

The council’s current president, Treutlen County Probate Court Judge T. J. Hudson, and executive director Kevin D. Holder, made day trips together between June and December of 2019, often visiting up to 10 courthouses a day, maybe staying for 30 or 45 minutes in each visit. They covered every county from Catoosa in the northwest corner of Georgia on the Tennessee line to Lowndes on the Florida line, some 375 miles south—and everything in between and to the east and west.

Looking back at that experience, what stands out in Holder’s mind now is how easy it was for anyone to drop in—after clearing security, of course—and see everyone, often working together in one big room. Local folks were coming in to have impromptu talks about probating wills or applying for marriage licenses and gun permits.

“In the majority of those counties, it’s not uncommon for you to just walk into a probate court, and the judge is right there and the staff is right there,” Holder said Thursday as he processed the shock of learning that the council’s friend and member, Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson, 63, had died the night before of COVID-19.

As of Thursday, Holder said he knew of three other probate judges from different parts of the state who were sick with the virus, as well as some of their clerks, staff and family members.

“We’ve sent our judges an advisory that you need a permanent succession plan, because you’re fine today, but it could be you tomorrow,” Holder said. “I think that’s where this story is about to head.”

Holder shared a memo from the council’s executive committee advising judges on how to proceed under the emergency orders from Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton, shutting down all nonessential functions. The council has determined some probate functions to be nonessential—like gun carry permits—but others to be more urgent—those related to guardianships, wills, marriages and other ongoing parts of life.

“As we were talking about this subject, we both said ‘We just try to push through and handle things while we are sick,’ but in these circumstances that may not be possible,” the memo said. “OCGA §15-9-13 addresses this subject: ‘If the judge is unable to act, the associate judge shall act. If there is no associate judge or the associate judge is disqualified, the judge may appoint an attorney. If there is no associate judge and the judge does not appoint an attorney, the Chief Judge of the Superior Court of the Circuit in which the county lies shall appoint someone to serve.’ It is our recommendation that every Probate Judge have a conversation now with their Chief Judge about this and discuss the possibility of this situation arising and put a plan in place.

“The bigger issue is what happens when the judge and the entire office is down. In light of the situation now, it is entirely possible for this to occur, especially in smaller offices,” the memo continued.

“There is no code that covers this, but everyone needs to have a conversation about it. How do you operate? Discuss with another judge/office near you for mutual assistance or come up with another plan, but have a plan in place and let your Chief Judge know that you have a plan and what it is,” the memo concluded.

Even before the news of the probate judge’s death, the pandemic had already devastated Albany.

Dougherty County had 521 cases, with 30 deaths, as of the latest update from the Georgia Department of Community Health at 7 p.m. Thursday. That’s more deaths than any county in Georgia—even the much-more-populated Fulton County, home to Atlanta. Fulton reported 747 cases and 23 deaths Thursday evening.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The New York Times and national television networks have reported extensively on Albany’s plight in recent days.

Gov. Brian Kemp went over it in his mind during an interview with Columbus television station WRBL. “One person went to a funeral—I don’t know if they knew they were infected or didn’t,” Kemp said. “They infected everybody else. And then people went to another funeral, a fish fry, and some big case that was happening at the courthouse. Then, all of a sudden you have community spread and an outbreak. That’s what we don’t want to happen.”

The big case at the courthouse was a weeklong murder trial, Holder said. One juror had been to the funeral. Soon, judges, staff members and other jurors were sick, and the regional medical center there, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, was overwhelmed.

Although he knew Stephenson and her “very dry” sense of humor well, Holder didn’t see the judge the day he and Hudson made their trip last year to the Dougherty County Probate Court. She was away because of an ongoing health concern—one he believes may have made her more vulnerable to the virus. But Holder did recall seeing her staff and remembered the probate court was right there on the main floor of the big white courthouse in downtown Albany.

“You walk in,” Holder recalled. “The main clerks are in front. In the back there’s a big open space. All their record books and other things are in there. There are offices along the side. Miss Delma and the other clerks are in back. On the right side is the courtroom.”

He was referring to Delma Hope, Stephenson’s longest-serving clerk—having served for 25 of the 27 years the judge had been in office.

“They were best friends,” Holder said. “They bonded like sisters. Judge Stephenson was like another mother to Miss Delma’s kids. They made a pact they would retire together.”

Miss Delma confided once to Holder that she’d been ready to retire for years. But she said to her friend, “I’m not leaving until you leave.” Before the last election, “Judge Stephenson said, ‘I’m still going to run.’ So Miss Delma stayed,” according to Holder.

The shock and concern for friends like “Judge Stephenson” and “Miss Delma” is greatly exacerbated by the inability to reach out—literally, Holder said.

“What other time in human history has the guidance been to stay home and do nothing? And that’s where we are,” Holder said. “The best thing we can do for each other is to stay apart. And hopefully, when we get beyond this, we can come back together again.”

And yet, he worried aloud, nothing will be the same.