Six Mecklenburg District Court judges face challenges for their jobs in November – including the court's longtime Chief Judge Fritz Mercer.
A former public defender and judge since 1991, Mercer sparked controversy last year when he removed a fellow judge from criminal court because police complained she was too soft on crime.
Mercer reassigned Judge Nancy Norelli to family court after officers argued she was dismissing charges and acquitting too many defendants. Mercer later changed his mind and returned Norelli to criminal court after sharp criticism from defense lawyers and pressure from fellow judges.
“I made the right decision at the time,” Mercer says. “But I put her back because I didn't want there to be a perception that police or any other segment of the court system could dictate how judges are assigned.”
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An Observer analysis published in June 2007 showed that Norelli was not acquitting an inordinate number of criminal suspects. Her 56 percent conviction rate was virtually the same as the average for Mecklenburg's 12 most active district court judges over a five-year period. Mercer actually had a similar conviction rate of 53 percent.
As chief, Mercer handles a variety of administrative duties for Mecklenburg's 19 district court judges. He offered to resign as chief over the Norelli controversy, but the N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice declined Mercer's offer.
Despite the controversy, Mercer says the courts under his supervision have become national models for drug treatment and juvenile courts.
“I have a proven track record as a sound judge after serving on the bench for nearly 18 years …,” Mercer, 65, says. “This is not a position for someone lacking judicial experience.”
Mercer faces challenger John Totten, a longtime Charlotte lawyer who says he wants to “restore public confidence” and increase the courts' transparency and accountability.
“I will commit to being part of the solution and work diligently to see that justice in Mecklenburg County is carried out firmly, fairly, and impartially,” Totten, 50, says.
Of Mecklenburg's 19 District Court judges, 11 are up for re-election. Five are running unopposed: Ronald Chapman, Bill Constangy, Hugh Lewis, Christy Mann and Louis Trosch.
Among the seven contested judicial races, all but one feature challengers trying to oust incumbent judges.
Millionaire goe safter judge after verdict
In the most unusual race, Bill Belk, grandson of the founder of Belk's department stores and nephew of former Charlotte mayor John Belk, is challenging Judge Ben Thalheimer.
Thalheimer presided over the property distribution in Belk's divorce and awarded the millionaire socialite's wife 52 percent of the $4.9 million in divisible assets.
Belk has said the court system treated him unfairly and needs to be changed. He says Thalheimer is part of “the painfully slow, exorbitantly expensive system.”
“He is neither fair nor impartial,” says Belk, who pledges to work to create what he calls “an expeditious, fair and cost-effective system.”
Belk, 59, got his law degree in 1983 but rarely practiced until representing himself during part of his divorce case.
Thalheimer has suggested that Belk's motives are personal, and questions Belk's qualifications.
“Bill Belk has never practiced law in a court of law except as a litigant in his own cases,” Thalheimer said. “I feel that it is critical before you ask to pilot a passenger plane, you should have flown a couple of times.”
Thalheimer touts his five years of experience as a judge. “Experience is vital to know what options are available and what will work…(and) necessary to move a crowded docket forward while still insuring that everyone has a fair opportunity to be heard.”
Tough reputation draws civil litigation lawyer
Judge Tom Moore has gained a reputation as one of the city's toughest judges. He is being challenged by Gary Henderson, who has nine years of experience in civil litigation.
Moore had the third highest conviction rate – 63 percent – among Mecklenburg's judges, according to the Observer's analysis in 2007. Moore also had the highest conviction rate – 86 percent – in drunken driving trials, an Observer investigation in 2004 found.
“I am a diligent and hard-working judge,” Moore, 66, says. “I get to court on time, stay until the docket is finished and volunteer to take the pressure off other crowded courtrooms … I have a vast and varied experience over my lifetime.”
Moore, a judge since 2003, was Mecklenburg's elected DA in the early 1970s. He's also been a teacher and a police officer.
Some criticize Moore's courtroom demeanor, saying he can be disrespectful to defendants and lawyers.
Henderson, 38, says both he and Moore are qualified for the judgeship. “The difference is not in qualifications, but in judicial philosophy,” he said. “I believe that everyone involved in the judicial system should be treated with respect.”
Henderson has been practicing law since 1999. For the past seven years he has been working for the state's division of social services, fighting to collect unpaid child support. He also has practiced family law and insurance defense.
“I can do a better job in the application and administration of the law and treatment of people involved in the court system,” Henderson said.
Family lawyer, ex-magistrate faces incumbent
Judge Todd Owens, who is seeking re-election, is being challenged by Kimberly Best, who has more than 10 years of legal experience. Both are pledging to follow the law and treat everyone in court fairly.
Owens spent 10 years as a criminal defense lawyer before becoming a judge in 2004. His 61 percent trial conviction rate was the fourth highest among Mecklenburg's judges in the Observer's 2007 analysis.
“I am seeking re-election to maintain a judiciary committed to helping the people of this community, to applying the law equally to everyone and to removing from society those who refuse to be helped or present a constant threat,” Owens, 41, says.
Best, 38, has practiced family and criminal law and handled everything from traffic and juvenile abuse cases to consumer finance and bankruptcy. She also has served as a Mecklenburg magistrate.
“I have over 10 years' legal experience and bring to the bench experience in all areas that will come before me…,” she says. “I will not show favoritism based on personal friendships with any of the attorneys or litigants but will listen to both sides and apply the law in a fair, firm and concise manner.”
Union prosecutor takes on relative newcomer
Daniel Roberts, a Union County prosecutor, is challenging Mecklenburg District Judge Donnie Hoover, who was appointed to the bench in January.
Hoover, 58, has practiced law for more than 30 years.
“I have handled every type of case that is heard before the District Court …,” Hoover says. “Most importantly, I have consistently demonstrated that I have the temperament, patience, and the desire to listen to and be respectful of all who appear before me.”
Roberts, 30, became a prosecutor in 2007, after working as an assistant public defender in Mecklenburg County.
“My experience as a prosecutor has taught me the value of having District Court judges who are able to efficiently preside over large caseloads while maintaining the ability to make sound legal rulings,” Roberts said.
His work as an assistant public defender taught him that judges must also “embrace and support the community by addressing issues such as poverty, lack of education and lack of positive role models.”Contenders foropen position talk of experience
Charlotte lawyers Stephen Kearney and Charlotte Brown-Williams, who are vying to replace retiring Judge Hugh Campbell, are both touting their legal experience and promising to administer justice fairly.
Kearney, 49, is a former state prosecutor who has been practicing law since 1988. Brown-Williams, 63, has been a lawyer since 1990. She also is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church who has served as a pastor for more than a decade.
“I want to be a judge to ensure that all who must come to Mecklenburg District Court can be assured that the judge before whom they stand is competent, qualified, insightful, fair and impartial,” Brown-Williams says.
Kearney said: “In my 18 years as a lawyer I have had an opportunity to practice in many courtrooms in Mecklenburg County. I have seen first-hand leadership from the bench…as well as instances where leadership was needed but not present…I will make a difference as a judge due to my legal experience, training and life experience.”
2 candidates on ballot but only 1 wants position
Also on the ballot is a candidate who no longer wants the job: Elizabeth Trosch was one of three candidates nominated to replace retiring judge Nate Proctor earlier this year. But Gov. Mike Easley failed to appoint anybody to fill the seat, so Charlotte lawyer Theo Nixon assumed the post in April since he was top vote-getter among the Mecklenburg County Bar's nominees.
Trosch, 32, filed to run for election in case Easley had appointed her to finish Proctor's unexpired term. But when Nixon got the job, Trosch announced she no longer wanted the post. Her name remains on the ballot but she is not campaigning.
“The people should keep their good judges on the bench, and I think that I am a good judge,” Nixon, 56, says. “I have an even-handed temperament and an excellent reputation among the judges and courtroom personnel that I practiced before as a private attorney for over 30 years.”