Being a probate judge in Georgia has turned into a vulnerability during the pandemic.
Fifteen of these Georgia judges — about 1 in 10 – have been infected with COVID-19. And this week, Karen Batten, 62, probate judge of Brantley County, became the third to die of COVID-19.
The state has 159 counties, with a probate judge in each.
Eleven probate court clerks in Georgia have also been sickened by the virus, and one has died, said Kevin Holder, executive director of the state Council of Probate Court Judges, on Tuesday.
Judge Batten died after spending weeks on a ventilator. Her husband also contracted the virus and was on a ventilator at a different hospital, but his condition is improving, said Holder.
The two others who have died were Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson in April at age 63, and Chattooga County Probate Judge Jon Payne in August at age 71.
Dougherty County was a COVID-19 hot spot early in the pandemic. Stephenson’s husband, a Dougherty State Court judge, also became infected with the disease.
Asked about the high infection rate among probate judges, Holder said it’s partly due to their accessibility to the public. “You walk into the office, you’ll see the judge sitting right there. There’s not a barrier.’’ Some of the judges became infected through community spread, Holder added.
The counties where judges were infected range from rural, like Brantley, to suburban (Newton) to urban (Muscogee).
Probate judges, as the title indicates, process wills and estates. In Georgia, they also handle weapons permits, marriage licenses and guardianships. In many counties, they handle birth and death certificates.
At the beginning of the pandemic, weapons permits were not processed because it’s a highly tactile procedure, Holder said.
According to Holder, it was “not a matter of if, but when’’ the disease would strike the probate courts. Among judges, he said, “we’re the class hit hardest. We’re getting all we can handle.”
The probate judges follow public health guidelines, he added.
Council President Kelli Wolk, Cobb County’s probate judge, called Batten’s death “heartbreaking,’’ according to a Daily Report article.
“Judge Batten was a genuinely kind soul,” Wolk told the Daily Report. “She was known to gently rib her colleagues, was always quick to share in a joke or funny story and absolutely loved her job as probate judge. . . . We will miss her sweet spirit, but we are heartened by the fact that we had the pleasure to cross her path.”
While some probate judges infected with COVID-19 have been relatively symptom-free, Holder said, Murray County Probate Judge John Waters was hospitalized in a coma for a month. “He has had to learn how to walk again,’’ Holder said.
Waters told the Chatsworth Times, “I am as guilty as anybody. I thought COVID was all a hoax and would be gone after the election. Then it hit me … like a freight train.”
Darin McCoy, probate judge in Evans County, noted Wednesday that he and 35 others are also supervisors of elections in their counties, and thus are more exposed to potential risk of infection.
“I’m interacting with thousands of people,” McCoy told GHN. “It’s very concerning. I’m trying to protect myself. We’re all wearing masks.”
“Wearing a mask is a very small thing to ask people to do when it can save someone’s life.”