While three names appear on the paper ballots for judge of probate in Kennebec County, only two are campaigning actively for the four-year post that became vacant with the death of James “Jim” Mitchell on Sept. 9.

One of those candidates is his widow, Elizabeth H. “Libby” Mitchell, 76, of Vassalboro, running as a Democrat. She is a 2005 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law and first was admitted to the Maine Bar in 2006.

Clarence H. “Skip” Spurling, 63, of Pittston, whose law office is in Gardiner, is seeking the post as a newly minted Libertarian. His gold-and-black signs, saying “Experienced & Independent,” have cropped up across the county in his first try for public office.

Kevin Sullivan, 42, of Gardiner, whose law office is in Augusta, is the Republican candidate. However, he has opted against raising or spending money on the campaign.

Voters across Kennebec County will head to the polls Nov. 8 to fill the part-time position.

Probate courts handle disputed estates of deceased people, adoptions, guardianships and conservatorships of disabled adults, and custody of children whose parents can’t care for them in cases that don’t go through the district court child protective system. Probate judges are bound by the rules of judicial ethics and judicial responsibility, and their decisions can be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Kennebec County had 738 new probate cases filed in 2015; about half those — estates probated informally — can be handled by the registrar of probate. The remainder go to a judge and some 15 percent of those reach a full hearing or trial stage, according to Kathleen G. Ayers, who has been elected registrar for the past 20 years.

Ayers said the county pays $700 a day for another county’s probate judge to hear cases because the position is vacant. The county has budgeted $33,891 as the salary for the probate court judge for 2016.

Ayers says the work is not just in the courtroom, and that the decision-writing and researching happens at their homes or offices.

“It’s a lot more hours than people realize,” said Ayers, who has written a letter to the editor indicating she’s supporting Mitchell for the post.

Mitchell said she has practiced in probate courts in counties other than Kennebec, and now will be handling her largest probate case ever, that of her late husband. Mitchell said her experience as a court mediator would help her on the probate bench, as would her work as a guardian ad litem representing the interests of children in state custody.

“A probate judge needs to know the law and to have the compassion to work with families when they’re most vulnerable,” Mitchell said. She said a judge has to understand changes in the law and make sure the “law is applied compassionately as well as competently.”

Jim Mitchell had been judge of probate for 37 years in Kennebec County as well as a practicing attorney for 46 years. He authored and regularly updated “The Maine Probate Manual.”

“I went over it with him as he worked on it every year as he updated it,” she said.

The Libertarian Party of Maine website describes Spurling as “a former Los Angeles County assistant district attorney (who) has been in practice in Maine for more than 20 years. He has experience with domestic relations litigation, parental rights and responsibilities, child and spousal support, among other things, in addition to civil, tort and criminal law.”

Spurling is a 1987 graduate of the Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles, and he first was admitted to the Maine Bar in 1992. He is also admitted to practice in state and federal courts in Maine and California as well as before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Spurling is financing his own campaign.

He had been registered as an independent or unenrolled voter, but he said he became a Libertarian after learning that party intended to nominate a candidate for the post.

“There was no other way to get on the ballot,” Spurling said.

Sullivan was chosen by the Kennebec County Republican Party.

He is a 2004 graduate of the Franklin Pierce Law Center, which has since become the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and was admitted to the Maine Bar the same year. He also is admitted to practice in federal court in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

“I’ve always wanted to be a probate judge and I love probate court,” Sullivan said. “And I think it’s because of Jim Mitchell. He was such a great guy.”

Sullivan said he had thought of running if Mitchell ever retired and said he’s handled probate cases up through the hearing stage and liked it.

“It looked like a nice supplement to my law practice,” he said.

Sullivan has run unsuccessfully for district attorney of Kennebec and Somerset counties as an independent and for the District 4 Gardiner City Council seat, a nonpartisan contest.

Mitchell said that with her husband “discussing concepts and legal issues with me, I felt I was learning law my entire marriage.” She said she learned, “Don’t accept the first thing you hear,” and that the focus should be on bringing justice to families.

She is a veteran campaigner and served as House speaker and Senate president in the Maine Legislature. She most recently ran unsuccessfully in 2010 in a three-way race for governor, which put Paul LePage in office for his first term.

“I plan to continue doing part-time practice with Jed Davis,” said Mitchell, who was “of counsel” with the firm of Mitchell & Davis.

Spurling said he’s running on principle and gotten “a great deal of positive support” from people he’s talked to in the community.

“I think it’s time this position wasn’t considered a political nugget to be handed down from generation to generation to one party,” he said. “Do you realize it’s been generations since anybody but a Democrat was in that office?”

He said he believes the choice should be based on “qualifications, and not political pedigree.”

Spurling said he’s argued at hearings in probate court and been appointed guardian to oversee finances for some vulnerable elderly people in probate court, but he said his best qualification is his trial experience in courts across Maine.

“Being in a courtroom and being an advocate in a courtroom is the only real training ground that there is for being on the bench,” he said. “And in that regard, I have more experience than my two opponents combined, literally.”

Sullivan gathered several hundred signatures to get his name listed as a district attorney candidate on the November 2014 ballot. But that was the end of his active campaign. He had no treasurer, no fundraising and no campaign signs.

He is relying on talking to people about his candidacy for probate judge.

Most of his time outside of his office is spent working on major renovation to his family’s home in Gardiner, which he hopes to complete before the weather gets cold.

Kristen Schulze Muszynski, director of communications for the secretary of state’s office, said the winner will serve Jan. 1, 2017, through Dec. 31, 2020.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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