Jena Culler has twice been appointed to Mecklenburgs bench in the past four years.
Gov. Mike Easley appointed her to a Mecklenburg District Court judgeship in 2008. Two years later, though, Culler was defeated in her bid to retain her judgeship.
Last year, Gov. Bev Perdue appointed Culler to a vacant judgeship.
Now Culler faces opposition again this time from former Mecklenburg Assistant Public Defender Grant Smithson in next months general election.
Its the second time in three years that Smithson has sought to unseat a judge. In 2010, he lost his bid to oust Mecklenburg District Judge Timothy Smith.
Culler received good ratings in a statewide survey of lawyers conducted by the N.C. Bar Association of judges up for election. Her overall performance rating was 4.26 on a scale of 1 to 5. She received a 4.35 rating for integrity and impartiality and a 4.28 rating on legal ability.
A rating of 5 is excellent, 4 is good, 3 is average, 2 is below average and 1 is poor.
Smithson didnt fare as well in a bar association survey evaluating the lawyers seeking to unseat judges or replace judges not running to keep their posts. He had an overall performance rating of 2.52. He received a 3.35 rating for legal ability and a 2.90 rating for integrity and fairness.
Culler believes she is the more qualified candidate for the judgeship.
Since becoming a judge, I feel I have found my calling, the 48-year-old said. In my years of private practice, I sought experience in all areas of District Court because I knew this is what I ultimately wanted to do.
I find that my broad range of legal experience, and my life experience, including raising three children and managing a law practice, give me a strong background to be a good judge. I am passionate about my work, and I am driven to improve how our courts serve this community.
Culler said she has a proven record as a fair and impartial judge.
I have the experience as a judge that is necessary to balance the need to move the high volume of cases with the need to ensure each persons case gets the attention it deserves, she said. I have the experience and integrity to continue to serve the citizens of this community well.
Culler says she has a broader range of legal experience than her opponent.
The judge points out that District Courts involve more than the criminal justice system.
They involve families going through divorce, contract disputes, personal injury matters, landlord-tenant issues, juvenile court, involuntary commitments, child support, and domestic violence issues, Culler said. In my years of practicing law, I practiced in every one of these areas of District Court. It is vital that we have judges with years of well-rounded experience, who are able to serve the needs of all of our courts.
Culler said her top priority is treating people fairly and impartially.
My priority is also to continue to improve the court system, she said. I work as the Child Support Committee chair, and on the Domestic Violence and Family Courts committees to continually improve the way these courts serve the community.
The issue in this race, Culler said, is the need to keep experienced judges with integrity and a proven record on the bench.
Smithson, 64, touts his experience in his bid to unseat Culler. For more than 30 years, he said, he has tried cases in state and federal courts and argued cases before the N.C. Supreme Court, the N.C. Court of Appeals and the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va. He said he has represented thousands of litigants and defendants and worked with hundreds of lawyers.
Of all the candidates running in contested District Court judge races, I have by far the most experience in District Court, he said. I fully understand the immense responsibilities and roles of a judge a defender and strict follower of the law, a person who must be both pragmatic and compassionate, a keen student of human nature and a person who knows full well the impact his or her decision will have on individuals, their families and the community at large.
Smithson said his focus during his legal career has been misdemeanor criminal trial work, juvenile defense, civil litigation, domestic violence cases, involuntary commitments and defending parents in Department of Social Services cases involving abuse and neglect.
I have appeared before nearly all the District Court judges since 1977, Smithson said. As a result, I am familiar with a vast variety of judicial styles and demeanors some good, some bad, some horrible and some exemplary. Needless to say, the excellent and good district court judges will serve as my role models when I am on the bench.
Smithson said that after almost four decades as a trial lawyer in the District Courts, he thinks he might be able to improve the quality of advocacy in the courtroom if hes elected to the judgeship. He said his priority as a judge would be to work with lawyers to improve their legal and courtroom skills.
The decisions of a District Court judge immeasurably affect thousands of people and their families, he said. It is crucial that defendants and litigants have qualified counsel to argue their cases, to advocate their positions, and to achieve better outcomes. I firmly believe that if the quality of advocacy improves on a day-to-day basis, there will better results for all the parties, better justice and more of it.
Smithson said hes challenging Culler because she has never been elected to a judgeship and was voted out of office in 2010.
My opponents seat on the District Court bench is not based on the voters choice the will of the people in a general election, he said. The voters that I have talked with during my campaign have expressed resentment and an attitude of rejection because they felt their voices were not heard and their votes did not count in the 2010 election. I was not going to give my opponent a pass to run in an uncontested election.
Smithson got in trouble with the law five years ago. He was charged in 2007 with driving while impaired. He pleaded guilty to DWI and was placed on a years probation.
Smithson has apologized for his conduct. He noted that former President George W. Bush pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in the 1970s.
We both admitted to our wrongs, we both accepted the consequences for them and we both have moved on, Smithson said.