The Battle for Horry County Probate Judge

By Paul Gable

It is not often a race for probate judge takes center stage in an election cycle, but that is exactly what is happening in the Republican Primary contest for Horry County Probate Judge.

The race pits three term incumbent Horry County Probate Judge Deirdre Edmonds against Kathy Ward, a former Associate Judge of the Probate Court, who worked under Edmonds for nearly 12 years.

On the basis of qualifications, this is no contest. It goes to Judge Edmonds hands down!

Edmonds is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, School of Law and was admitted to the bar in 1987. She was a practicing attorney specializing in estate planning, probate, tax and elderly law before becoming Horry County Probate Judge. Should she leave the bench today, Edmonds could be back representing clients in Probate Court or any other South Carolina courtroom tomorrow.

Kathy Ward is not an attorney or member of the bar. During her time under Edmonds in Probate Court, Ward only heard non-contested cases. She is not licensed to practice law and cannot represent clients in Probate Court, even though she was an associate judge there before resigning.

But, South Carolina’s outdated 19th Century Constitution does not require a probate judge to be a member of the bar or to have any legal training or experience, so Ward is qualified to run.

In the last several weeks, the race has turned negative with attacks on Edmonds’ character, job performance, almost everything about her.

Ward is using a time-tested political strategy – when you don’t have anything positive to say about your own candidacy, go negative on your opponent.

But the back story to these negative comments is more interesting than just campaign dirty tricks.

In 1998, Horry County Probate Judge Carolyn Wright decided not to seek re-election and to retire. Ward was a Probate Court Associate Judge under Wright. Ward sought the Democratic Party nomination for Probate Judge, but lost to Marge Livingston in the primary. Diane Buffkin Creel was the Republican Party nominee.

Buffkin Creel won the 1998 election and one of her first acts in office was to fire Ward from her Associate Judge position. Buffkin Creel had no legal training before being elected to the office of Probate Judge.

By 2002, the perception was that the Probate Court was in a mess and several attorneys practicing before it encouraged Edmonds to run against Buffkin Creel. One of Edmonds’ strongest supporters was none other than Kathy Ward who wrote a letter to citizens, through local media, not only supporting Edmonds’ candidacy but also advocating that the Probate Judge should be an attorney and member of the bar for the smoothest running of the court.

After defeating Buffkin Creel, Edmonds re-hired Ward as an Associate Judge who was only allowed to preside over uncontested cases. That relationship worked fine for 11 years. Ward reached maximum service for retirement, then, worked five more years under the TERI program for public employees. Her TERI eligibility ran out early this year.

Ward approached Edmonds about taking a three month vacation, then, being rehired as an Associate Judge on a year to year contract – a provision under state law that allows retired public employees to remain in their former position after TERI eligibility has expired.

Edmonds declined Ward’s request spurring Ward to file in opposition to Edmonds for the office.

To make things even more interesting, upon hearing of Ward’s candidacy, Buffkin Creel contacted Edmonds offering her full support and any help needed with the Edmonds’ campaign.

Do I detect hopes (by Buffkin Creel) of being hired as an associate judge in return for campaign help?

That didn’t pan out for Buffkin Creel, so just recently she publicly endorsed Ward and has been trashing Edmonds on Facebook. (More hopes of an appointment after the election?)

At much the same time, the Ward campaign has turned negative with claims about how poorly the Probate Court is being run under Edmonds stewardship and how poor of a job Edmonds is doing as probate judge.

Would this be the same Judge Edmonds that Ward supported in previous campaigns, worked under for 11 years and sought to continue the working relationship with even after she was effectively forced into retirement by state law?

Only when those plans went awry did Ward decide to run against Edmonds and, now, has discovered all sorts of negative things about Edmonds time in office that we can only presume Ward was completely blind to while filling the position of associate judge in the Probate Court. Otherwise, why remain working for Edmonds for so many years while your state retirement benefits build up to maximum?

As for Buffkin Creel, we can only presume that she is looking for future employment as an associate judge. After her approach to Edmonds was unsuccessful, Buffkin Creel turned to the Ward campaign. I guess any port in a storm when you’re looking for a job.

As the last days of the Ward campaign mudslinging effort play out, we’ll see just how much voters are fooled by talking points now that the background, and probably the motivation, is exposed.

For a look at the real Deirdre Edmonds, watch the ‘Big Talk’ television program Sunday night June 8th. A one hour interview of Edmonds by Jack Murphy will be broadcast on WWMB CV 21 beginning at 5 p.m. WWMB is channel 8 on Time Warner cable, channel 16 on HTC cable and channel 21 on Direct TV.

Read the endorsement letter of Edmonds by former Horry County Solicitor current Sen. Greg Hembree: (Click here) Greg Hembree Endorsement ltr

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