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How we see races for Mecklenburg district court

More than 200,000 cases a year work their way through Mecklenburg County’s district court. They include traffic violations, criminal misdemeanors, divorces and child custody fights, civil disputes involving less than $10,000 and other cases.

Twenty-one judges handle that load, and six contested seats are on the ballot this fall. Four incumbents face challengers; one seat is open because a judge is retiring and one seat is open because an incumbent judge lost in the primary. Six other judges are on the ballot unopposed.

The races are nonpartisan, and so have to be voted on separately; straight-ticket votes do not apply to these races.

Here’s how we see this year’s races:

Brown-Williams v. Hewett

Charlotte Brown-Williams, 67, had been a lawyer and a pastor for more than a decade in the AME Zion Church when she was elected to the district court in 2008. We said at that time that, while charming and outgoing, she was not suited to be a judge. People familiar with her work say her performance has been underwhelming, and that was backed up in a survey by the North Carolina Bar of more than 300 lawyers familiar with her work. Those lawyers gave her below-average marks for her legal ability, with only 40 percent calling it good or excellent.

She faces Tracy Hanna Hewett, an attorney in the Mecklenburg public defender’s office. At judicial forums this fall, she has demonstrated a passion for the work and a deep understanding of the court system and the law. In the N.C. Bar survey, three-quarters of respondents rated her overall performance as excellent or good.

We recommend Tracy Hanna Hewett.

Culler vs. Smithson

This is one of the easier calls on the ballot. After 18 years in private practice, Jena Culler was appointed to the bench in 2008 and again after losing to Donald Cureton Jr. in 2010. She has demonstrated an expertise in the complex area of family law and shows great command of the legal system. She is smart, articulate and respected by the legal community. In the N.C. Bar survey, she received very high marks across the board, including a 4.26 for overall performance on a 1 to 5 scale.

Her opponent, Grant Smithson, is a former assistant public defender and a private lawyer who came in third of three candidates in a bid for judge in the 2010 primary. He has not shown he has the temperament to be an effective judge. In the N.C. Bar survey, fewer than one in five of the 207 lawyers who rated him called his professionalism good or excellent. He pleaded guilty to DWI in 2008.

We strongly recommend Jena Culler.

Hands vs. Thompson

Ty Hands was appointed to the Mecklenburg bench in 2009 and again after losing to Sean Smith in 2010. A magna cum laude graduate of Winston-Salem State University and UNC Chapel Hill law grad, Hands is Mecklenburg’s lead domestic violence judge. She is energetic and intelligent and has experience in several different areas of the legal system. More than 280 lawyers in the N.C. Bar survey gave her very high marks, with close to 90 percent calling her good or excellent in integrity, professionalism and communication. She is also fluent in Spanish.

Her opponent, Jeff Thompson, has been in private practice for more than 20 years. He is smart and well-spoken, but we’re weary of any judicial candidate who touts his political ideology in his ads. In the N.C. Bar survey, his scores were far lower than Hands’, with fewer than half of respondents calling him good or excellent in most categories.

We recommend Ty Hands.

Hoover vs. Traw

Judge Donnie Hoover was appointed to the bench in 2008 and held on to the seat in an election that fall. We noted then that judges and lawyers said Hoover knew the law well but worked slowly and had trouble getting through daily dockets. That remains his reputation today. Many lawyers agree that Hoover has the integrity and professionalism to be a judge, but that cases back up in his courtroom. More than 300 lawyers rated Hoover in the N.C. Bar survey, and only 45 percent said his administrative skills were good or excellent. About 84 percent, however, gave him a good or excellent for integrity/fairness and for professionalism.

He faces a challenge from Alyson Traw, a staff attorney at the Charlotte Housing Authority and a former assistant DA. She pledges to speed things up compared with Hoover. In the N.C. Bar survey, she rated higher than Hoover for administrative skills but lower than him on all other measures. About 58 percent gave her a good or excellent for overall performance, compared with Hoover’s 69 percent.

We give the slight nod to Hoover, but voters rightly concerned about his lack of speed have an alternative in Traw.

Henderson vs. Wiggins

Gary Henderson and Roy Wiggins are running for the seat held by retiring Judge Tom Moore.

Henderson has spent much of his career as an attorney handling child support enforcement. Wiggins has spent much of the past 22 years as a prosecutor.

Henderson is praised for his demeanor and he speaks passionately about rehabilitating the recidivists who clog Mecklenburg’s courtrooms. His background is not as broad as Wiggins’, however, and fellow lawyers rate him considerably lower than they do Wiggins, with about half of respondents in the N.C. Bar survey giving him good or excellent marks for legal ability and administrative skills.

Wiggins has deep experience in district court, and had the highest score for overall performance in the N.C. Bar survey of any judicial challenger in Mecklenburg.

We recommend Roy Wiggins.

Strickland vs. Watson

Either of these candidates will be an upgrade from the man they beat in the May primary, Judge John Totten.

David Strickland has been a sole practitioner for the past seven years, working regularly in district court across different types of cases. He says that experience equips him to be an effective judge. In the N.C. Bar survey, about 68 percent of his peers gave him good or excellent ratings for overall performance.

Kary Church Watson is a family law attorney with Horack Talley. She has taken more than 20 cases to the appellate courts and more than three-quarters of those were decided in her favor, she said. She is known as a hard worker with a firm demeanor. Her marks in the N.C. Bar survey were about the same or higher than Strickland’s in every category and significantly higher in legal ability and administrative skills.

We recommend Kary Church Watson.

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