The race for Judge Ann Marie Calabria's seat in the North Carolina Court of Appeals presents a classic dilemma in judicial elections: Do you support an incumbent with a competent voting record, but whose philosophy you disagree with, or do you support an equally qualified challenger with a more progressive judicial approach?
Calabria is a conservative—she tends to side with corporate interests—and a self-professed practitioner of judicial restraint who has served on the North Carolina Court of Appeals for eight years. She lost a contest with Robin Hudson for the state Supreme Court by 1.2 percent in 2006 and proved a bit of a sore loser. Calabria took the election to court, arguing that Hudson benefited unfairly from what Calabria claimed was illegal campaign advertising. Calabria requested the election results be nullified and that a new election be held. The courts sided with the State Elections Board, and in the end the vote held, and Calabria remained an appellate judge.
Two challengers want Calabria's seat. The first is Mark Klass, a conservative Democrat and superior court judge from Davidson County. Klass provided only the most perfunctory answers on his Indy questionnaire, but in 2006 he reported to the North Carolina Family Policy Council, a conservative group, that he did not support the right of gay couples to adopt children, and that his judicial philosophy resembled that of Clarence Thomas more than any other U.S. Supreme Court justice
We endorse the second challenger, Judge Jane Gray. First appointed as a Wake County district court judge in 2002, she was elected in 2004 and 2008. Prior to her service there, Gray spent 18 years in the N.C. Department of Justice and two years as the general counsel to the (pre-scandal) office of felon and former House Speaker Jim Black.
An appellate position, much like that of a district court judge, requires a nimble mind and a propensity for dogged hard work. The N.C. Court of Appeals handles an immense volume of cases. First and foremost, an appellate judge needs to be able to handle the work.
We believe that Gray, with her background in the North Carolina Department of Justice, will be more amenable to the causes we believe in. Though in her questionnaire Gray unequivocally asserted that politics has no place in the courtroom, she also voiced stern disagreement with the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates of corporate spending in elections. Since Judge Gray has proven herself to be a competent and diligent district court judge, with a reputation for fairness and hard work, we feel confident she'll serve the state well at the appellate level.
Conservative Rick Elmore was first elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2002. We strenuously object to Elmore's decision in 2007 to uphold a lower court's ruling in favor of North Carolina's awarding of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits and incentives to entice Dell to build a plant in the state. Multinational corporations like Dell have become adept at playing on states' fears of manufacturing job loss to wring enormous concessions out of them, and North Carolina has shamelessly chased such corporations, giving huge rewards for often dubious economic investments.
After receiving its incentives, Dell broke its promises and began outsourcing its N.C. abroad. The North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law sued against the state on the taxpayers' behalf and questioned the constitutionality of such incentives. Elmore and the other judges who ruled in favor of Dell missed a crucial opportunity to create a more equitable and reasonable state.
Elmore's response to our questionnaire was brief, to say the least, and revealed little of his judicial philosophy, aside from the fact that he is no "activist."
Challenger Alton Bain is an Eastern North Carolina tax attorney with degrees from Duke, UNC and the University of Florida. He did not return our questionnaire but is well regarded by those who know him and have worked with him.
Steven Walker graduated from Campbell Law School in 2005, and has spent the time since as a clerk in the office of N.C. Supreme Court Justice Thomas Brady. Walker is running the most overtly political campaign of any judicial candidate in the Triangle this year, raging on his Web site about the need for conservative interpreters of the U.S. Constitution. According to Walker, we should vote in judges based on their family values and their parents' state of residence.
The fourth candidate to challenge Elmore is Chapel Hill attorney Leto Copeley, whom we endorse for the appellate court. Though Copeley has never served as a judge, her résumé speaks for itself. She put herself through Hunter College and then Harvard Law School by working as a cashier, waitress and maid. She moved to North Carolina 27 years ago to clerk for a federal judge and has been in the state ever since.
After serving as a judicial clerk, Copeley went into private practice and is now a partner at a large statewide law firm. Copeley has argued numerous cases in front of the N.C. Court of Appeals and has an impressive history of service to the state. She has a particular history in advocating in worker's compensation cases, which often make their way to the appellate level. She is the consensus pick of Democratic and nonpartisan legal organizations from across the state, and we see no reason to differ.
Our choice for the District 10 seat is Damion McCullers, a young, energetic Raleigh attorney. McCullers completed his undergraduate studies at N.C. Central and earned his law degree from Campbell. McCullers grew up in Wake County and interned with the Wake County District Attorney's office. His priority, as discussed in his response to our questionnaire, is juvenile justice, particularly Wake County's endemic gang problem. Raleigh needs individuals in all facets of its criminal justice system who will work to tackle the expanding reach of the gangs and their underlying causes, and we feel McCullers is qualified to do so.
Dan Nagle did not return our questionnaire, but he is a qualified candidate. Nagle retired after 28 years in the Wake County Sheriff's Office, went to law school and became an assistant district attorney. His commitment to public safety and the criminal justice system indicates that he would be comfortable in the district court, but his unresponsiveness to our questionnaire and his bare-bones Web site don't provide enough information about him for us to endorse him.
Kris Bailey is a perennial candidate for various judicial positions. He served from 2000–2004 as a Wake County district court judge and was not re-elected. He ran for the N.C. Court of Appeals in 2006 and was badly defeated by incumbent Bob Hunter after Bailey struggled to find support for his campaign. He has based much of his current and past campaigns on a pledge not to take campaign donations from lawyers. Certainly, that's an admirable stance to take, given the conflicts of interest inherent in judicial elections, but it isn't enough to merit our endorsement.
The three candidates seeking to fill the Durham district court seat being vacated by Elaine Bushfan are all reasonably qualified.
Patricia Evans is a Durham lawyer, mother and grandmother with strong roots in the community.
Catherine Constantinou is another longtime Durham resident with 17 years of experience as a lawyer, specializing in family law.
Our choice for the Bushfan seat is Brian Aus. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill Law School, has an impressive résumé of high-level criminal and civil cases. He is highly respected in the local legal community. He delivered some of the most thoughtful and in-depth responses to our candidate questionnaire, displaying a keen understanding of the issues that district court judges face.
He professed a concentration on treatment and prevention for nonviolent drug offenders and said the courts need to do a better job of identifying and handling cases of ment ally ill offenders. He also puts his money where his mouth is, volunteering as an instructor for the STARR Program for substance abuse treatment in Durham.
Some familiar Durham faces are reappearing in the race for the second District 14 seat on the ballot May 4.
Freda Black, the local attorney who gained notoriety for her prosecution of Michael Peterson, who was found guilty of murdering his wife, was fired by then-District Attorney Mike Nifong in 2005. She has since lost two bids for the Durham District Attorney's office and has a somewhat checkered history. After her first loss to Nifong in the 2006 Democratic primary, Black refused to concede the loss and ditched a press conference. Black did not return our questionnaire.
Assistant District Attorney Doretta Walker is also running. Walker has plenty of trial experience, and she supplied detailed, informative answers on our questionnaire. However, Walker made headlines in the Indy three years ago this month when she prosecuted a dubious, yet expensive intellectual property case against a resident of an affordable housing complex and lost in Superior Court.
Durham County Magistrate Steven Storch provided the most idiosyncratic responses to our questionnaire of any judicial candidate. His responses were extremely detailed and thoughtful but unusual for someone seeking a district court position. Storch, a former professor with a doctorate in ethics, treated our questions as an opportunity for some interesting and educational digressions into Enlightenment political philosophy and existentialism. Storch has served as a prosecutor as well as a magistrate, so his experience is not in doubt, but a Durham district courtroom is Kafkaesque enough for us.
Our endorsement goes to Durham attorney Kerry Sutton. Sutton put herself through undergraduate and law school studies while in her mid-30s and a single mother. Sutton has experience in the Chatham County District Attorney's office and started her own law firm. She has concentrated on district cases for the last decade in order to beef up her credentials for a district court judgeship, arguing before dozens of judges in nine counties. She has an apparently bottomless well of energy to draw from, raising her children, running her law firm and actively volunteering in a leadership role with North Carolina Advocates for Justice. Last year, Gov. Bev Perdue appointed Sutton as the sole criminal defense attorney on the Governor's Crime Commission.
Correction (April 15, 2010): Damion McCullers interned with the Wake County District Attorney's office.