Two longtime judges face off in contested Harrison County court race

Sandy Steckler, left, and Margaret Alfonso are headed to a runoff election Tuesday for the Chancery Court judge position that serves Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties.
Sandy Steckler, left, and Margaret Alfonso are headed to a runoff election Tuesday for the Chancery Court judge position that serves Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties. Sun Herald file

Two longtime judges agree that three things will make the difference in their run-off election Tuesday for chancery court judge of Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties.

That would be voter participation, voters’ personal experiences with either of the candidates and word of mouth.

Incumbent Sanford R. (Sandy) Steckler is challenged by Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso, a former longtime chancellor.

Steckler has served on the Place 3 bench for 16 years, since Jan. 1, 2002. He was appointed to fill the unexpired term of former Judge J.N. Randall and was elected to three terms.

Alfonso, a former chancery court judge for 12 years, is finishing her second term as youth court judge. She is the first woman elected to preside over youth court in Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties.

Chancery court is a trial court with jurisdiction over domestic matters such as child custody disputes, divorces, adoptions and guardianships, mental competency hearings and wills. The court also handles land, fraud and contract disputes.

The judge’s position is non-partisan and so is the election.

Steckler’s views

Steckler says the chancery court is his “comfort zone.

“It’s a comfortable role for me to be able to help people, especially children. Families come in to court often feeling like they’re on a ledge, and I’m in a much better position to guide them and help them because of the expertise I’ve developed. Working with children is the greatest part of my comfort zone.”

In custody cases, for instance, when a trial is over, the work is just beginning, Steckler said.

“We have to continuously monitor that child until it reaches 21 years old or is otherwise emancipated.”

In some cases, “we have to teach people how to parent their children so they can show love and be loved,” Steckler said.

In other cases, “the court has to decide where a child should be placed and who is the safest person to place that child with. Chancery court is a place where I’m able to help people, including broken families, get through difficult, life-changing experiences,” he said.

Steckler said his accomplishments include issuing the order to convert the court’s paper system to an electronic system like the one used in federal court, and being appointed by the state Supreme Court to serve on a commission for the protection of children and disabled adults.

He’s a former state senator who served two terms from 1972 to 1980.

Alfonso’s views

Alfonso said she’s well-familiar with the emotionally charged types of proceedings that come before a judge.

“I want to be a good listener and make the best decisions with sensitivity and compassion based on what the law and common sense allow,” Alfonso said.

“I’ve heard over and over from people that a change is needed. I’ve had people all over the three-county area reaching out to me and I’m grateful for their support.”

She has been named by the state Supreme Court to serve on four commissions that include issues such as domestic abuse and access to justice.

Alfonso is a founding member of PACT, Professionals Advocating For Children Together. It’s mission is to protect abused and neglected children.

Alfonso said she wants to implement some of her successes in youth court, such as bringing court-appointed special advocates to chancery court cases when needed.

If elected, Alfonso said she plans to set up guardianship classes to help guardians get the legal authority they need, for instance, to enroll a child in school or get them medical treatment, she said. Such classes are being held elsewhere in the state.

“I want people who cannot afford legal representation to have access to the civil courts, and that is my number one priority, along with bringing CASA to chancery court,” she said.

Chancery Court has guardian ad litem positions for people who investigate and make recommendations on the best interests of a child, Alfonso said.

“If people vote for me, I will be fair and the outcome will not depend on who your lawyer is or whether or not you can afford one,” she said. “I will treat all people with respect and compassion.”

She also wants to create a mental health court for people who are involuntarily committed. They need proper aftercare and case management, Alfonso said.

Diane Herman Ellis, who was beat out by Alfonso in the mid-term election, has thrown her support to Alfonso.

Both candidates agreed that voter turnout is often low in run-off elections. Both said they want voters to go to the polls Tuesday and show their support.

Robin Fitzgerald, 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews