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Two qualified men, a Republican and Democrat, are vying for one seat on the state's highest court. And in this race, their party affiliation means everything. It also means nothing at all.
In North Carolina, judicial races are ostensibly nonpartisan, which makes a campaign an exercise in how many times one can fit the words "fairness" and "impartiality" into a stump speech.
Still, Republicans currently hold a 4-to-3 advantage on the state Supreme Court bench, according to the justices' voter registration. Meaning the political balance of the court, along with its philosophical bent, could shift based on the outcome of this race.
In this next eight-year term, the court could hear challenges to some recently passed legislation, including putting on the ballot Amendment 1, which codified in the state constitution a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions for both straight and gay couples. Politics could play a role in those decisions, so we endorse Judge Sam J. Ervin IV, who currently sits on the appellate court. In our view, he can render an impartial judgment no matter his personal views. About his Republican opponent, incumbent justice Paul Newby, there's still doubt.
Ervin, 56, is a jurist of high reputation. After obtaining a degree from Harvard Law School, he spent the next 18 years as a private practitioner in Morganton, N.C. He later served on the state utilities commission. In 2009, he won a seat on the State Court of Appeals.
Lawyers who've appeared before Ervin remark on his superior grasp of the law. As a sitting member of the Court of Appeals, he's written more 350 opinions. And in a long career, he's handled a range of decisions, from state energy regulations to murder cases.
Newby, too, is an accomplished jurist, having spent nearly two decades as a federal prosecutor before his 2004 election to the bench. But just this year, he's attended several tea party rallies; in 2005, shortly after he was first elected to the court, Newby was seen attending an anti-gay marriage rally.
More recently, state GOP chairman turned lobbyist Tom Fetzer, along with a handful of other high-powered conservatives, formed a political action committee to support Newby's re-election bid. The group has neither raised nor spent a dime since news of its formation made the rounds, according to the most recent financial disclosure reports.
Still, that it was formed at all indicates that Newby is the clear, unanimous choice by the conservative political elite.
For Cressie Thigpen's professional experience and legal pedigree, he gets our endorsement. Like nearly all candidates for the judiciary, he touts his fairness and impartiality. And he strikes us, as well as members of the legal community, as a judge who will do as he says and apply the law equally and fairly.
Appointed to the N.C. Court of Appeals by Gov. Beverly Perdue in 2010, he's the first African-American lawyer to be inducted into the North Carolina General Practice Hall of Fame. That's helped him earn the endorsement of the Durham People's Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
Thigpen also has 30-plus years' experience as both trial lawyer and special superior court judge. That gives him the clear edge over his opponent, Robert Christopher Dillon. Endorsed by the Wake County GOP, the crux of Dillon's campaign is his oft-repeated pledge to not legislate from the bench.
That's a laudable pursuit. It's also a heap of red meat thrown out to Republican voters. As it stands, Dillon, an attorney who specializes in employment and regulatory law, has zero experience presiding over a court of any level. And that's what precludes him from the post.
Despite having no judicial experience, Republican David Robinson has stepped up to try and unseat Linda McGee. It's worth noting that McGee was first appointed to the bench in 1995, making her the longest serving woman on the court, and its second most senior judge.
Since diversity and experience are traits that we value highly, we endorse Linda McGee.
McGee is among nine Democratic judges on the state Court of Appeals. The other six are Republicans, according to voter registration records. If maintaining that majority is of importance for progressive values, then McGee is the pick. With her ensconced on the court, buttressing the Democratic majority, the philosophical status quo will be maintained as expected legal challenges to the Republican-led redistricting plan begin to make their way through the court system.
But even if the differential between Republicans and Democrats on the court were of no consequence, McGee would still be our choice. Robinson, who like McGee did not submit an Indy questionnaire, is an attorney for Nexus Pruet, a firm that specializes in corporate and employment law.
He's running on a platform of "judicial restraint." And while there's precedent for generally conservative judges sitting on the court, Robinson has no experience actually presiding over a courtroom.
We endorse Judge Wanda Bryant in her reelection bid. By all accounts, she's the type of judge that North Carolina deserves—fair, knowledgeable and respectful of all who enter her court.
A former prosecutor, her work history includes stints at the highest levels of the state and federal judiciary systems. She spent years as a deputy in the North Carolina Attorney General's Office. She's also worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney.
Bryant was appointed to the state Court of Appeals in 2001 by then-Gov. Mike Easley, a fellow Democrat. After serving for 11 years, she has written more than 1,000 opinions.
She's also been recognized by the Durham People's Alliance, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Equality NC, all of whom have endorsed her in this election. That, and her wealth of experience, gives Bryant the nod.
Her Republican opponent, Martin McGee, has for the last 10 years served as a district court judge in Cabarrus County. But unlike some of the other challengers, he's not touting his party membership or conservative leanings as a qualification for the office. In fact, he's not confessed to any conservative judicial philosophy. That's a plus, given the unseemliness of his fellow challengers' near-naked partisanship.
Still, his record doesn't trump his opponent's. The choice is Bryant.
We endorse Abe Jones. First appointed to the court in 1995, he has nearly two decades of experience administering a trial court at the state's highest level and has an impressive résumé. But in recent months, lawyers have criticized Jones' administrative skills: his maintenance of the court calendar and tardiness in rendering his verdicts. That criticism reflected in a job performance evaluation survey compiled by the North Carolina Bar Association earlier this year.
Members were asked to rate judges on qualities ranging from administrative skills to legal ability to integrity. A total 690 lawyers weighed in with their opinions of Jones, and the results are enough to give us pause.
On a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest score, Jones received an overall mark of 3.3. That puts him well below most of his colleagues on the superior court bench, most of whom notched scores of 4 or higher.
More notably, Jones' score ranks him below his opponent, Bryan Collins. For nearly two decades, Collins has served as head of the Wake County Public Defender's Office. As a longtime trial lawyer, his peers in the legal community respect him. And we are impressed with his perspective on the role of the court and how the system can be improved to ensure that justice is served for defendants and plaintiffs both.
But we will not endorse to unseat an incumbent judge on lawyers' opinion alone. And despite the criticism, we could find no evidence that Jones has ever been reprimanded, publicly or otherwise, by the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, the body tasked with investigating complaints of judicial misconduct. And not even his harshest critics can point to any egregious lapse in his understanding or administration of the law.
We believe that some of the criticism of Jones is valid. We hope that Jones considers it carefully and then works to make the appropriate changes.
We endorsed Erin Graber in the 2012 primary, and we endorse her again in the General Election.
Well-respected by her peers, Graber is a former advocate for domestic violence victims; her legal specialty is families and children—the types of cases often seen in district court. She also is concerned about budget cuts to indigent defense funding, not only from a fiscal standpoint but a constitutional one. Graber also participates in the Wake County Volunteer Lawyers Program and was profiled in N.C. Lawyers Weekly for her pro bono work.
Graber's opponent, Dan Nagle, ran for district court in 2010. He retired after 28 years in the Wake County Sheriff's Office, where he supervised the juvenile investigations unit. His list of supporters includes arch-conservatives House Majority Leader Skip Stam, Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble, U.S. Attorney George Holding (who is also running for Congress) and Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.
We didn't endorse either Anna Worley or Charles Gilliam in the primary. But since our choice, Daniel Barker, lost, we now have to choose between an incumbent, Worley, with poor administrative skills or a self-described conservative with corporate law experience.
Despite her shortcomings, we're cautiously endorsing Anna Worley because of her four years of experience on the bench. She is a Family Law Specialist certified by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Specialization and a certified Family Financial Mediator. She serves as a family court judge. She also sits in on domestic violence court and criminal courtrooms.
We strongly encourage her to become better organized and work on her administrative skills. Justice cannot be adequately served when there are unnecessary delays that upend families and victims who are already vulnerable.
Gilliam graduated summa cum laude from Michigan State law school and has worked in corporate, business and intellectual property law. He teaches classes in management innovation entrepreneurship at N.C. State University. He's clearly a bright guy, but his background doesn't adequately prepare him for the cases—family, domestic violence, custody, misdemeanor crimes, etc.—he could encounter as a district court judge.
In District 14A, we endorse Orlando Hudson. Hudson is the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge in a district that includes nearly all of Durham. Hudson was first appointed to the bench in 1989.
His answers s in the Indy questionnaire suggest that his ideas on how to make the trial process more efficient aren't novel. For instance, he says that the county build its own crime lab, so that evidence-processing delays at the state crime lab are no longer a factor.
Still, Hudson's peers in the legal community cite his knowledge of the law's intricacies and humane approach to meting out justice. It's earned him the endorsement of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.
But Hudson has received some criticism of late. That's a polite way of saying that before being removed from office, former Durham District Attorney Tracy Cline waged war on Hudson's reputation, accusing him of judicial misconduct.
However, the state Judicial Standards Commission, the panel tasked with reviewing such complaints, has since cleared Hudson of the charges. It was an ugly period. And Hudson has emerged from it intact.
For his opponent, Durham prosecutor Jim Dornfried, it's not uncommon for prosecutors to make the jump to the superior court bench. But Dornfried's own professional reputation may need to be rehabilitated before that happens.
He's received criticism from peers for impatience and unwillingness to utilize sentencing alternative programs. And in a recent survey conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association, he received below average marks for integrity and other qualities.
More importantly, however, Dornfried's candidacy reeks too much of the scandal that entangled his old boss. Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood removed Cline from office in March for making what he ruled were "false and malicious" statements about Hudson's conduct. During Cline's three years as the county's top prosecutor, and when she herself was pulled into court to defend her accusations of Hudson, Dornfried was one of her chief lieutenants. The clear choice is Hudson.
Corrections: Elaine Marshall defeated Cal Cunningham in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary race; she then lost to Richard Burr. Cathy Wright resigned as chairwoman of the Chatham County GOP due to her House District 54 candidacy. Tamara Barringer is an adjunct assistant professor of legal studies at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School (not an adjunct professor at the UNC School of Law).