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Newcomer takes oath

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Studebaker likely 1st IL resident in countywide office

By Greg Summers

For perhaps the first time ever, a resident of Lancaster County’s Panhandle has been sworn in to countywide office.
It isn’t the highest-profile position, and many voters probably can’t even describe its duties, but it’s a job that touches almost every family eventually – probate judge.
Dee Studebaker, a 51-year-old Republican lawyer who lives in Indian Land, took the oath of office Wednesday before a standing-room-only crowd at the Historic Courthouse. As probate judge, she will run the office that administers estate law after a county resident dies.

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“This service isn’t for me,” Studebaker told the attendees. “It’s for you, because you chose me to be your next probate judge.”
Studebaker’s residence isn’t the only thing that sets her apart from politics-as-usual in Lancaster County. She’s also a newcomer, having moved here from Arkansas in 2014. “She’s the first person in recent memory from north of Highway 5 to hold a countywide position, and that’s a big thing,” said S.C. Rep. Brandon Newton (R-Lancaster), addressing the well-wishers.
Hazel Taylor, a Lancaster City Council member who went to work at the local election commission in 1967, says she can’t recall anyone from the Panhandle winning one of the six countywide positions – the others are sheriff, coroner, treasurer, auditor and clerk of court – during her years watching local politics. Other political veterans concur.
Lancaster Mayor Alston DeVenny, also an attorney, told the crowd that Studebaker will be in a position to help families navigate difficult legal issues.
“All of us will eventually need the services of the probate judge, sort of like the sheriff or coroner,” said DeVenny, noting that the United States will see one of the largest transfers of wealth ever over the next two decades.
“Judge Studebaker is going to be part of that, and all of us are going to need her services,” DeVenny said.    
Elected last November, Studebaker succeeds Sandy Estridge, a Democrat who announced in April that she would not seek a fifth term.
Estridge, first elected probate judge in 2002, hired Studebaker as an associate probate judge in 2016.
Local attorney Robert Folks, a former school board chairman, noted in his remarks that Lancaster County voters elect a new probate judge every couple of decades.
While most see the probate judge as dealing with wills and estates, Folks said the post’s responsibilities are much broader.
Probate court also provides protection for those with mental illness, disability, special needs and advanced age, as well as those with chronic alcohol and drug addiction. The court also appoints guardians for minors and issues marriage licenses.    
“And it’s also personal,” Folks said, noting that the probate judge’s office has to assist families hurting from the death of a loved one.
“She meets people where they are in the midst of life’s most difficult circumstances,” Folks said.

Arrived in ’14
As a newcomer, Studebaker breaks the mold of homegrown politicians – or at least longtime residents – holding the countywide offices. She’s part of a huge influx of new residents in Indian Land, one of the state’s fastest-growing areas.
“I’m only 24 years old, but I can remember when Indian Land had two stoplights and one of them blinked,” Newton said. “Just think about how rapidly our county has changed.”
That growth, he said, is increasing the workload for the probate office.
“There is a caseload for our court system that’s truly astonishing when compared to 30 years ago,” he said. “I think Dee Studebaker is well-positioned to handle it, with the growth and all the changes that will be taking place.”
Her family moved here in 2014 when her husband, Tim Studebaker, accepted a job as an executive for a Charlotte-area trucking firm. They chose to live in Lancaster County with their two sons and immediately embraced their new home.
Studebaker got involved in school activities in the Panhandle, including support for Indian Land High School baseball, as well as other service organizations. She is a member of Lancaster Breakfast Rotary Club and the Anne Springs Close Greenway.
“In short, she was all in, just as many of our residents are,” Folks said.     

Legal background
Studebaker graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1993 with a law degree and passed the state bar in 1994. She went to work for a law firm there that specialized in business law and estate planning.
She then got a job with the Arkansas Appellate Court to hone her legal-writing skills in estate law before becoming a deputy prosecutor for Washington County. Just before moving here, Studebaker helped organize a legal clinic for those who couldn’t afford an attorney.
Given such a strong background in probate matters, Studebaker clearly had the skillset for an associate judge, said Estridge, who hired Studebaker in July 2016.
“The reason why I hired her is I needed her on our staff,” Estridge said.
“I have big shoes to fill and I know it,” Studebaker said of Estridge.
Studebaker noted that her decision to seek the probate judge’s seat strengthened her the ties with her newfound home.
“I’ve never been a political person, so I really had to get outside my comfort zone when I started campaigning. It was tough at first, but I had fun because it gave me an opportunity to meet and talk to people. I really feel like I can make a difference,” she said.   
Studebaker is also an accomplished painter, having been raised in home where the fine arts – especially the stage arts – were emphasized.
“When I was a little girl, I told my parents I wanted to do something real, where I can act in front of people and it not be scripted. A couple of days later, my father came back and said I should be a lawyer, so that’s what I did. Now, here I am,” Studebaker said.   
   
Follow reporter Greg Summers on Twitter @GregSummersTLN or contact him at (803) 283-1156.