The N.C. Court of Appeals, which is the second most powerful legal body in the state, has four contested seats on the November ballot.
But that doesn’t mean that the candidates’ thoughts on such pressing issues as oral arguments, meeting en banc or speeding up the appellate process made for great political theater Friday at the N.C. Bar Convention in Charlotte.
Fifty minutes and eight candidates left little time for in-depth answers. In fact, the bigger news for the audience members came after the forum from state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin’s “State of the Judiciary” speech.
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The candidates in the four supposedly nonpartisan races are:
▪ Mecklenburg District Judge Rickye McKoy-Mitchell vs. incumbent Valerie Zachary.
▪ Incumbent Richard Dietz vs. Wake County District Judge Vince Rozier.
▪ Former Wake Superior Court Judge Abe Jones and incumbent Bob Hunter.
▪ Incumbent Linda Stephens vs. state administrative law Judge Phil Berger Jr.
Here are four observations from the two sessions.
A more optimistic chief justice
For several years, Martin has gone around the state lecturing how the justice system has been steadily undermined by inadequate financial support from the governor and state legislature. Friday, his tone was radically different – claiming that an almost $500 million courts budget, the product of a partnership between the three branches of North Carolina government, “was restoring the courts to good health.”
Martin is a strong supporter of a statewide electronic filing system to lower costs and make the courts more accessible to the middle class. Contrast that, however, to the technology budget of the Mecklenburg clerk of court’s office. It handles more than 300,000 filings and collects some $100 million a year but only recently scraped together enough money to buy its first scanner.
Black robes, black faces
Abe Jones did the math: More than 80 percent of the defendants in the North Carolina court system are African-American males. Yet not one of the 15 Appeals Court seats is held by a black man.
Jones, Rozier and McKoy-Mitchell are all black challengers running against white incumbents. In her opening remarks, McKoy-Mitchell struck a populist bent that has appealed to minority voters in the past – a judge who operates outside the courthouse. While emphasizing her 32 years of experience, she said she remained committed to being a a jurist who “knows the faces and not just the cases.”
In 2014, North Carolina ranked second in the amount of money it spent on its court races, and the debate over maintaining an independent judiciary against the pull of increasingly partisan politics and rising campaign spending has been debated here for the past decade or more.
On Thursday, the paradox of judges as political candidates was on full display. Some of the candidates looked far more comfortable asking for votes than others.
Handed the portable microphone, former Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. strolled around the stage in the Westin ballroom like it was his backyard. While fellow Wake Forest law graduate Richard Dietz finished at the top of his class, Berger said he simply finished, drawing laughter from the audience. Berger, the son of Senate President Phil Berger, appeared to be falling back on the politician’s reflex of appearing smart, but not much smarter than his audience.
His support for more decisions by the entire appeals court also sounded politically based. Voters, he said, need to know “just where a judge stands on important issues.”
On the other hand, Dietz, who has been on the court for two years, openly described his intellectual aspirations. He said he has handled more appeals as a lawyer and a judge than the other 14 court members combined. He shared his goal of becoming a “great legal thinker and a great legal writer,” and being part of a court that aspires to set a national standard for excellence.
It appeared almost as an afterthought when he asked for the audience’s support.
‘First thing we do is kill all the lawyers’
Martin closed with some troubling statistics for the legal profession.
▪ 56 percent of Americans would rather handle a legal matter by themselves than hire a lawyer.
▪ 82 percent believe attorneys do a better job for the rich.
▪ 76 percent believe the courts are influenced by politics.
These are some of the same people who will be electing North Carolina’s judges in November.