Two Democrats have turned the campaign for a nonpartisan North Carolina 26th Judicial District Court seat into a sometimes testy political debate over style and substance.
During forums for court candidates, incumbent Theo Nixon and challenger Yolanda Trotman have at times traded barbs instead of engaging in the normal low-key exchange of judicial views.
With so many district judges up for re-election this year, Trotman says she chose to challenge Nixon in the 26th District, which has jurisdiction in Mecklenburg County, because she doesn’t like how he treats lawyers and others in his courtroom.
In response, Nixon says Trotman, who’s 22 years his junior, lacks the experience and the résumé to replace him on the bench.
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Trotman, 40, is making her first political race. The former history, debate and speech teacher at North Mecklenburg High has run her own law firm focusing on criminal defense and family law for nine years. That, she says, sets her up “for a short learning curve” when she is elected judge.
One of her first goals: “To change the atmosphere on what it feels like to work in a courtroom,” she says.
As a teacher, Trotman said her job did not end with the final bell. As a judge, she says, her work day won’t end when the courthouse closes. Nor will she confine her official duties to her courtroom.
She says judges must be familiar with all the communities that elect them, “not just the one in which you are most comfortable ... You need a judge to understand the everyday problems of the people you face.”
Nixon, a Charlotte native, started his law career as a public defender in 1977, then was partner in a firm for 20 years before helping start his own law office in 2000. The Mecklenburg County Bar selected him to fill a District Court seat in 2008, but Nixon lost the election to retain it. Two years later, he was appointed to fill a vacancy by Gov. Bev Perdue and was unopposed in the 2012 general election.
He says the General Assembly’s falling support for the court system has led to smaller staffs and a court system that relies on outdated technology. Judges, he says, must become more creative in stretching dollars and conducting the public’s business. District judges receive a salary of about $110,000.
Toward that end, Nixon says he resurrected the Criminal Courts Committee, which involves regular meetings of all relevant parties in the county courthouse to solve problems before they interrupt the flow of cases. He also created a probation violation court to expedite those cases, and a mediation court to solve disputes before they lead to a trial. He says he would like to start similarly specialized programs to handle DWIs and treatment for veterans.
On his judicial temperament, Nixon offers no defense. If you’re an attorney appearing in his court, he says, you had better be on time.
“I’m a straight talker,” he said recently. “I talk to people so they can understand what I’m telling them. I will put people in jail if they’re late.”
Trotman thinks courtrooms should be run differently. When she was asked her priorities during a recent campaign interview, she started with this: “How people, how members of the bar are being treated” in courtrooms. She did not mention Nixon by name.
Attorneys appear to have a slightly higher opinion of the incumbent. In a survey by the North Carolina Bar Association that ranks candidates 1 to 5 on integrity and impartiality, legal ability, professionalism, communication and administrative skill, about 200 participating lawyers gave Nixon an overall score of 3.85; Trotman received 3.13.