Cover Story: Electing judges

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Among the choices on Tuesday's ballot there's a candidate with a DWI conviction.  Another has been reprimanded by judicial officials.  A third is a law clerk at the State Supreme Court who's now says he's ready to sit on the bench.

Each of them met the qualifications to appear on the ballot for North Carolina judge.

But how do you know which is which?

Lots of North Carolina citizens pay close attention to the candidates for Senate and sheriff and representative, but when it comes to judges most people have no idea who they're voting for or why.

With three recent scandals locally pulling judges off the bench, we're asking is this a cause for concern?  Some people believe it is.

North Carolina is one of only six states that elects judges on all levels from top to bottom.. from the state Supreme court down to the local courts.

Yet do you know what makes for a qualified judge?  Yet you get to vote.

"No clue. No clue.. who to vote for."

Thomas Lewis is just being honest.  With the ballot this big the major offices you feel like you know them and the choice is easy.

But get on down the ballot to the judicial races when there's no political party next to the name and it can be devilishly difficult.

"Voting for these judgeships is.. I have absolutely no clue," he says.  "So I didn't vote.  I think I picked one because I thought I recognized the name."

A job so important, that of dispensing justice, we leave up to chance?

"People don't know the judges," said voter Kim Moseley.  "And they get elected and they find out afterwards when it's too late that they aren't qualified,"

It's happened recently.

Bill Belk of the department store fame was elected District Court judge two years ago without any judicial experience.  He got into trouble and got off the bench.

Two of his fellow Mecklenburg district court judges were also recently disciplined.  John Totten was suspended indefinitely.  And Tim Smith who's on Tuesday's ballot twice has been reprimanded by the state's Judicial Standards Commission.

Professor Beau Baez of the Charlotte School of Law says, "I tend to be opposed to elected judges. I don't think you necessarily get the best people for the job because they are open to anyone with a law degree."

Campaign signs don't tell you whether a judicial candidate's qualified or not.

And voter guides the state sends out don't offer that much.  Judges don't take public stances on issues for a reason.  Who'd want a judge who's made up his mind before hearing evidence in a case?

Few voters are like John Hackney.  He went to a candidate forum met a judge who he agrees with.  "I usually get involved with some type of group along with my beliefs. I went over who to vote for. I wrote it on a napkin and her I am," he said.

Some states have gotten away from electing judges.  Instead a governor or legislature chooses from a list of vetted candidates and then an appointment is made.

But that has its detractors as too.

Nicola Bivens of Johnson C. Smith University says, "If you simply allow the governor to make an appointment.. the only people that are going to make it to the bench are those who are connected well politically. There are a lot of qualified candidates who may not be politically connected."

Supporters agree giving people the power to elect judges also gives them the power turn out a judge who does poorly on the bench.

If you're an opponent of the process don't look for anything to change anytime soon.  That would require changing the state Constitution and that is very difficult.

We are the only nation in the world that elects its judges.  A point former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor made at a speech recently here in North Carolina.

She said that in her home state of Arizona the quality of judges improved after the state stopped electing them.

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