Full Legal Name: Eric Lee Levinson
Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Eric Levinson
Office Sought/District: Associate Justice, Supreme Court of North Carolina
Party: Nonpartisan Race (but registered R)
Date of Birth: 05-30-1967
Home Address: Cornelius, NC
Mailing Address (if different from home): 1235-E East Boulevard, Box 257 Charlotte, NC 28203
Campaign Web Site: www.LevinsonforJustice.com
Occupation & Employer: Superior Court Judge, State of North Carolina
Years lived in Durham: 0
Work Phone: 828 619 0710
1. If you have made pledges, taken positions or otherwise commented on how you might rule in office, what are your top three priorities or issues of concern for the coming term?
Since first becoming a judge in 1996, I have adhered strictly to the N.C. Code of Judicial Conduct. We are objective arbiters of the law, and it is our role to consistently administer the law without favoritism toward any party or public policy objectives. Our judiciary must rise above the political divide, and it is contrary to our Constitutional and ethical obligations to make specific commitments. I have not made any commitments to any groups or otherwise indicated how I might rule given any set of particularized facts and circumstances. It is my commitment to remain open-minded; follow the law; and do everything I can to administer the law while being mindful about achieving justice.
2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the bench? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.
My work for over twenty (20) years has been in advancing the cause of credible, respected, transparent systems of justice. I care deeply about our system of justice, and I have as much concern about our courts today as I did in the mid-1990s when I first became a judge who is responsible for the administration of justice.
I have the relevant experience needed on the Supreme Court. We have a surprising dearth of Supreme Court members who have actually been inside our Constitutional trial courtrooms as judges. My experience as a Superior Court judge, where I am responsible for handling our most complex civil matters and most grave criminal matters (homicide, sexual assault), is needed. I am the candidate who has presided over jury trials; made Constitutional decisions; decided whether to terminate parental rights or reunite a child with a parent; handled and managed large, complex civil matters; sentenced those accused of crimes to prison; exercised discretion in a variety of settings; and made an infinite variety of additional decisions expected of those who work inside our trial courtrooms. Furthermore, I am the only candidate who has experience as a trial court judge and as an appellate court judge because of my work as an Associate Judge of the NC Court of Appeals. And I am the only candidate who has seen, firsthand, persons who have been deprived of due process as a result of my leadership work with the U.S. Department of Justice as the Justice Attache to Iraq -- and later as a USAID affiliate rule of law advisor for the Supreme Court of Afghanistan.
I am honored that the Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court (ret.) describes me as "simply the most qualified candidate in this race." I am privileged to have the endorsement of the John S. Leary Bar, an Association of Black Attorneys; the NC Fraternal Order of Police; and other groups and community stakeholders statewide. I have been appointed to the bench as a judge and in rule of law leadership roles not only by persons associated with the GOP but by a Democratic Governor of this State. It is this type of bipartisan support that illustrates the broad trust that others place in me.
I have handled every type of civil and criminal matter that comes into our courtrooms, and I have resolved thousands of cases during my career. But this experience doesn't, standing alone, qualify me for your support. Instead, it is the demonstration of important qualities that we look for in our judges that has caused Democrats and Republicans alike to support my candidacy: my demonstrated commitment to fairness and objectivity and my dedication to decisions made without favoritism and with consistent adherence only to the facts and existing law. Our courts are not 'for sale' -- meaning as judges we must not be concerned with whether our decisions are met with favor.
I grew up in the Gastonia and Charlotte areas and completed law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. I served as a District and Family Court Judge in Mecklenburg County for six years; the N.C. Court of Appeals as an Associate Judge in Raleigh for five years; and have served as a Superior Court Judge since 2009. I have been a member of the judiciary since 1996 with the exception of the time I served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007-08, I was in Iraq as the Justice Attache to Iraq for the U.S. Department of Justice where I led a team of rule of law professionals. In Afghanistan, I counseled members of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan on the establishment of new civil courts. I have seen, firsthand, people who do not enjoy liberties and freedom as a result of my work overseas. I carry these concerns – together with my collective experience – into the courtroom each day.
I am committed to honest public services; adherence to the law with compassion; consistency; and the courage to make the hard decisions expected of members of our Supreme Court.
3. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?
I care about people; about North Carolina; and about our system of justice. I take the objective of seeking justice and legally correct outcomes in every case very personally, and I expect a lot not only from myself but also from others in our courthouses statewide who we entrust with a measure of public responsibility. I do my best to act with integrity each day, and in doing so I hope to model for others the type of diligent, intellectually honest work that we expect from our judges.
4. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.
I am one of the few judges in decades to exercise my limited authority to enter a “JNOV” – a judgment notwithstanding the verdict – in an habitual felon burglary matter against an accused in Charlotte, NC. In State v. Kenneth Bowden, I entered a judgment in favor of the accused even though the jury found him guilty. I was heavily criticized in the media and the case drew statewide attention. But, rather than sentence the defendant to 12-15 years when I knew – as an experienced lawyer and judge – that the evidence was legally insufficient, I dismissed the charges. My decision was later affirmed by an unanimous 3-judge panel of judges at the NC Court of Appeals. The public ridicule illustrated the lack of faith our public has in our judiciary, and it reminded me that we have much work to do to reclaim its confidence.
We must be mindful as judges that the accused in a criminal matter and the litigant in a civil dispute should be entitled to full due process. And we must remember that everything we do inside the courtroom is about the needs of the people who have cause to broach the doors of the courthouse. No matter the difficulty – and no matter the potential criticism – we must be vigilant about reaching correct legal outcomes that result from a fair, honest application of the facts/evidence and law.
5. Do you favor or oppose public financing of judicial races? Please explain. What changes would you make to the current system to improve it?
No matter what system of judicial selection North Carolina utilizes, there will always be some measure of ‘politics’ involved. While there is disagreement about whether our judges should be appointed or elected, I have encouraged our General Assembly to consider a ‘hybrid’ appointment-election process that allows our citizens to be directly involved in the election of candidates and accommodates appointment as a means to examine the needs of our courts and the relative qualifications of candidates. Here are some of my comments addressed to members of the North Carolina Bar Association at its annual meeting in Wilmington, NC in June 2014:
I have encouraged movement to a hybrid appointment-retention election process. Serious, sincere dialogue with stakeholders involved in the vetting process and relative consideration of a needs and qualifications matrix. But I necessarily embrace the only system we employ -- and dutifully accept that we are relegated to a process that is sometimes raw; sometimes unpleasant; and always fundamentally flawed and inherently damaging to our judiciary. I will advance an honest, positive, constructive campaign effort. And I have urged persons and entities external to my campaign to do the same -- to be honest and positive.
I have concern about having our judicial candidates seek dollars to fund their campaigns, as this risks undermining the public’s confidence in decisions of the court. It is, however, presently the only means to advance credible, transparent judicial campaigns, and I am committed – as are the volunteers and others who assist my candidacy – to adhering to all ethical, legal, and reporting guidelines for fundraising and expenditures.
6. Have you ever recused yourself from a case or, as a lawyer, faced a conflict of interest? Please describe the case.
The presiding judge may recuse him/herself from a case on the court’s own initiative, or it can be considered if one or more of the parties or litigants requests the same. This is a case-by-case determination, and applying our specific guidelines on recusal into account is very important. I have recused myself from several cases since I first joined the bench in 1996 where family members, friends, or others I know have been involved in civil or criminal cases.
7. The passage of mandatory minimum sentencing laws has removed some of the discretion judges, juries and prosecutors used to exercise in the sentencing phase of criminal trials. Should judges have more or less flexibility in the sentencing phase than currently allowed under North Carolina law? Please explain.
I believe there are institutional biases that make it more likely that persons in lower socio-economic rungs of our society enter the criminal justice system. There is a high-percentage of minorities who struggle with cycles of poverty; cycles of drug dependency; and a lack of educational and employment opportunities. I am, like so many of my colleagues, troubled by the high percentage of African-American men who are incarcerated.
When Structured Sentencing was adopted in North Carolina in 1994, it was intended to mitigate the inconsistent treatment of invidiuals statewide who are similarly situated in terms of criminal conduct/culpability and prior record, if any. And it was intended to require more violent offenders – regardless of prior criminal history – to be subject to more severe penalties and prison time. There have been many changes to our sentencing guidelines since 1994 – though we still utilize the same basic regimen for sentencing – and it is incumbent upon us to continunally examine whether our sentencing objectives as set forth by the General Assembly are being met by these sentencing guidelines – objectives that include not only punishment and public safety concerns but also rehabilitation to help transition individuals into productive, healthy lives.
8. In this new technological world, do you perceive a conflict between government surveillance and the need to protect an individual’s privacy?
With respect to our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures – which include not only our ‘physical’ spaces such as homes and automobiles but also our ‘data and virtual’ spaces such as telephone records, internet activity, etc – it is important for us to sustain our individual interests and reasonable expectations of privacy. Our nation has a unique, historic recognition in our interests in not having the government interfere in our privacy interests. In the modern world, we now deal with new challenges – and in doing so we must be vigilant and mindful about our Fourth Amendment protections.
9. What are your thoughts about criminal culpability for young people? Is the North Carolina criminal justice system treating them appropriately?
North Carolina is one of a minority of jurisdictions nationwide that provide that all persons sixteen (16) years or older are charged as adults. Between 1996-2002, I served in the Juvenile Court as a judge. Presently, I handle only adult matters. Our criminal system of justice should take into account not only public safety concerns, but also the individualized needs and rehabilitative objectives of each individual. We have many young people who are being assigned a ‘felony’ classification for property and drug offenses, and taking this action is a significant event in the life of a young person who must deal with that classification and the challenges it brings for the remainder of their lives. I have, as a judge, oftentimes encouraged and sanctioned ‘diversion’ programs for young offenders.
10. Does the death penalty place an undue financial burden on the courts? If so, assess the impact.
The systemic costs of the death penalty are significant. The availability of this penalty for certain first degree murder offenders is presently a part of the law of North Carolina, and the General Assembly will ultimately decide whether to retain or repeal this sentencing alternative. As a judge, it is my function to administer the law as adopted by the General Assembly. It is critically important, of course, that we ensure that all procedural and substantive due process opportunities are afforded to the accused – including effective legal representation – in these matters.
11. Justice Department Officials had instructed federal prosecutors across the country not to focus federal resources on individuals who were complying with state laws regarding the use of medical marijuana. As a judge, do you find this philosophy confusing?
We live in a Constitutional republic, and two sovereigns have jurisdiction over that which each sovereign (U.S. Congress and an individual State) decides to criminalize. In a decision from the mid-1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision authored by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, sanctioned the federal government’s authority to criminalize and prosecute materials such as cocaine and marijuana. Since that time, the federal government (through its prosecution arm, the U.S. Attorneys) has focused on larger-scale drug trafficking/possession offenders as contrasted with small-possession persons. The senior deputy or assistant U.S. Attorney General at Main Justice in Washington, DC, in an interview several months ago, stressed that the federal government’s policies have not materially changed since some States began to decriminalize certain drug possession/use activities. There is, admittedly, still some room for confusion under certain circumstances, and these issues will continue to arise in the coming months/years.
12. The law offers special protections to racial and ethnic minorities. Are members of the LGBT community sufficiently protected?
There are many ongoing legal challenges related to the LGBT community, and these issues and cases are very likely to come before me as a judge. I cannot, consistent with the N.C. Code of Judicial Conduct, comment on whether the members of this community are “sufficiently protected.”
13. Has the current process for redistricting served the State well?
We live in a representative democracy, and as a government we must ensure that persons’ interests and public policy concerns have true representation in the halls of our legislative bodies – federal and state. There are numerous proposals to change the process of redistricting, and I cannot comment on those specific proposals because they are likely to be the subject of litigation. To offer additional comments would run afoul of my obligations under the N.C. Code of Judicial Conduct.
14. Have the legislative branch unduly depleted the power of the judicial branch in terms of civil procedure?
Our legal history in North Carolina has reflected a balance between procedures adopted by the courts (through the adoption of common law/prior case authorities) and the adoption of procedures by the General Assembly. Many of the procedures codified by the General Assembly were previously being utilized by the courts and had been adopted through our common law. Our courts are ultimately responsible for the administration of justice. Where the General Assembly oversteps its authority in a way that doesn’t comport with our Constitutional obligations, our courts must ‘step in’ to ensure the lines between our law-making body and our judicial branch are respected and sustained.
15. There is not complete judicial uniformity across the state; some jurisdictions, for example, have family and drug courts while others do not. Are we meeting the needs of the entire state?
There are many individualized needs broaching the courthouse steps, and we must as a judiciary and be prepared to address the dynamic needs of the people we see in our criminal, civil and domestic relations courts. There is not presently uniformity in the delivery ‘therapeutic’ court services statewide.