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Sutton to run for York Co. probate judge

Rock Hill City Councilman Kevin Sutton will run for York County probate judge, relying on a 16-year record in public office to overcome his lack of formal training in the law.

Sutton faces attorney Carolyn Rogers in a Republican primary on June 8. No Democrat filed for the seat, meaning the GOP winner will succeed Judge John P. Gettys Sr., who announced his retirement.

Sutton waited until the last possible day to file. His entry came after weeks of urging from friends and counterparts in the Republican Party, including state Reps. Gary Simrill and Ralph Norman, former prosecutor Tommy Pope and activist Kathy Bigham.

First elected to the City Council in 1994, Sutton, 39, ranks among Rock Hill's most outspoken political figures thanks to an at-times combative style that earns admirers and critics.

Sutton noted that he currently serves on the city's Court Committee, which oversees the operations of the Rock Hill Municipal Court.

"Under my leadership," Sutton said, "the Probate Office will continue providing impeccable service to the people of York County during the difficult and emotional issues of probate."

Each S.C. county elects a full-time probate judge to administer wills and estates of deceased people, involuntary commitments and, on a happier note, marriage licenses. Gettys oversees a seven-person staff and makes $95,000 per year.

The announcement touched off a back-and-forth between Sutton and Rogers, who contends her legal experience makes her the more qualified choice.

Rogers, 62, said the contest ought to be about qualifications, not politics.

A 24-year resident of Rock Hill, Rogers handles estate planning, probate administration and litigation, and real estate matters. She's active in the Bar Association and the Ask-A-Lawyer telephone assistance hotline.

"Judicial independence is one of the most important principles of our society," Rogers said."The probate judge serves all citizens of York County fairly and impartially regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, race, ethnic background and political views."

That explanation doesn't sit well with Norman.

"She's a Democrat and she needs to file as a Democrat," he said. "That incenses me that somebody would do that. You don't file just to get elected."

Sutton said in his announcement, "While two names will appear on the Republican primary ballot, Kevin Sutton is the only Republican running."

Pressed on her political leanings, Rogers said she has supported candidates from both parties. She acknowledged voting in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

Federal records show Rogers donated $250 to Democratic U.S. Rep. John Spratt on five occasions between 1996 and 2006. Norman unsuccessfully challenged Spratt in 2006.

"You have to choose a party to file with," Rogers said. "Ultimately, it's about a judge serving the citizens of York County in a fair and impartial manner."

Two-thirds of S.C. probate judges are not attorneys, Gettys told The Herald. More populated counties such as Richland and Horry tend to have attorneys in the post, while smaller, more rural counties do not.

"Any judge ought to have legal experience, but it's not a requirement," said Gettys, elected in 1994. "Obviously, legal experience is good."

Probate judges are confronted with more complex cases than in the past, said Mitchell Payne, an attorney in Rock Hill since 1989. A growing elderly population has led to heightened demands. Jury trials are now permitted in probate court.

"Do I think it can be learned? Probably," Payne said. "It's just that I believe there's a very steep learning curve, and it's becoming increasingly complex to get into these areas of law."

Sutton graduated from Winthrop University in 1992 with a degree in business administration. Rogers did her undergraduate work at University of Mary Washington in Virginia and earned a law degree from the University of Georgia.

Sutton is a regional sales manager with Flakeboard America, a company that sells particleboard used in home cabinetry.

Skeptics who question Sutton's ability to digest material and make informed decisions should watch a City Council meeting, Simrill says.

"You can tell he has read about every subject they are taking up," Simrill said. "He takes his council job extremely seriously."

As representative of the working-class former mill neighborhoods in Ward 3, it is often said that Sutton represents "old Rock Hill," the town where he grew up.

Sutton relishes his reputation as a limited-government spendthrift, voicing criticism over city investments in sports complexes, consultants and, most recently, a $114,000 plan to cultivate a college-town feel around Winthrop University.

Less often, Sutton's social conservative views have flared. In 2006, he used Jesus' name in a pre-meeting prayer at a time when the practice faced threats of lawsuits from civil liberties groups.

"I said Christmas, too," Sutton said afterward. "I'm not scared of the ACLU. I didn't do anything wrong."

Sutton can keep his City Council seat during the campaign.

"You can hold one office and run for another," said Chris Whitmire of the state Election Commission. "You just can't hold two offices at once. If he won, he would have to choose."

Probate court handles 1,200 estates per year, as well as 500 hearings involving estates, guardian and conservatorships and mental or chemical dependency matters.

Who's running

Congress

Democrat: John Spratt (i)

Republican: Mick Mulvaney

District 29

Incumbent Republican Dennis Moss is unopposed.

District 43

Incumbent Republican Greg Delleney is unopposed.

District 45

Democrat: Mary Bernsdorff

Republican: Deborah Long (i)

District 46

Democrat: Holly Cooper

Republican: Gary Simrill (i)

District 47

Democrat: Herb Kirsh (i)

Republicans: Tommy Pope, Brett Boyd, Vance Stine

District 48

Incumbent Republican Ralph Norman is unopposed.

District 49

Democrat: John King (i)

Republican: Marvin Rogers

York County

Probate judge

Republicans: Carolyn Rogers; Kevin Sutton

No Democrats are seeking the seat brought vacant by the retirement of Judge John P. Gettys Sr.

Council District 1

Republicans: Paul Lindemann (i), Tom Audette, David Bowman, Kyle Boyd

No Democrats are running.

Council District 2

Republicans: Bruce Henderson, David McCorkle

Incumbent Tom Smith is not seeking re-election; no Democrats are running.

Council District 3

Republicans: Joe Cox (i), Eric Winstead, Jerry Benfield

No Democrats are running.

Council District 4

Democrats: Roy Blake (i), William "Bump" Roddey

Republican: Tom Hardin

Council District 5

Republicans: Curwood Chappell (i), Marty Taylor

No Democrats are running.

Council District 6

Republicans: Buddy Motz (i); Alex Haefele; Britt Blackwell; Terry Hutchinson

No Democrats are running.

Council District 7

Incumbent Democrat Chad Williams is unopposed.

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