VOL. 7 | NO. 41 | Saturday, October 4, 2014
Probate Court Trio Returns for New Terms
By Bill Dries
The two judges and clerk whose court is at the center of the practice of estate law in Shelby County were returned to their offices by Shelby County voters in the August county general elections.
Probate Court Judges Karen D. Webster and Kathleen N. Gomes as well as Probate Court Clerk Paul Boyd each faced challengers in the election that drew a 27 percent voter turnout overall.
(L to R): Gomes, Boyd, Webster
The court’s primary business is wills and estates, as well as conservatorships and guardianships.
But it also issues passports and corrections to birth certificates and determines when someone should be hospitalized under court order under the state’s mental health law.
The court is where the records of the most complex to the simplest wills and estates are kept and where disputes that can’t be settled by mediation are decided.
The judges and clerk deal with executors who in many cases have never been in a courtroom, much less filed a document with a court in their lives. And the relationship with attorneys who oversee such details is a close one.
Even before the current incumbents held the three offices, past clerks and judges have acknowledged that Probate Court’s work goes largely unnoticed until citizens come to the court following the death of a relative – often at a trying time in their lives.
Gomes practiced law for 34 years, exclusively in probate law for 15 of those years. Before she was appointed judge, she was a substitute judge for Webster as well as past Probate Court judges.
Webster came to the court by a different path. She was an assistant city attorney – city prosecutor for seven years, then chief city prosecutor for another seven years – all in Memphis City Court. She also had been a part-time business tax auditor for the Internal Revenue Service and an affiliate broker at a local realty agency.
Boyd worked for the Shelby County Election Commission and the Shelby County Trustee’s office in administrative positions before becoming clerk.
The court’s two judicial positions are filled by nonpartisan elections for eight-year terms of office. The clerk’s position is a partisan election for a four-year term.
Gomes was appointed Probate Court judge in 2013 by the Shelby County Commission following the retirement of Judge Robert Benham.
She faced a determined challenge from attorney Damita Dandridge and attorney Richard Parks.
Gomes won with 40 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Dandridge and 24 percent for Parks.
Webster was elected Probate Court judge in 2006, the previous “big ballot” election featuring the once-every-eight-years judicial races. She upset incumbent Probate Court Judge Donn Southern in that election.
Eight years later, she faced challenger Danny Kail, an attorney fresh off a hard-fought bid to become Probate Court clerk four years ago.
Webster won another eight-year term this August with 64 percent of the vote.
Like the other judicial incumbents on the big ballot this year, Gomes and Webster faced aggressive challengers who were among an increase in opposition for judicial incumbents.
In 2006, only one judicial race on the big ballot was without an incumbent seeking re-election. On the 2014 ballot, there were five.
Eight years ago, 20 incumbent judges ran unopposed compared to 10 this election year.
Boyd succeeded Republican clerk Chris Thomas in 2006 as Republicans swept every countywide office on the general election ballot. This year, Boyd faced Democratic challenger William Chism, who was a rare sight on the summer campaign trail after winning a crowded Democratic primary in May.
Boyd won with 53 percent of the vote as he and every other Republican incumbent for countywide office were re-elected.