In North Carolina, judges are elected. You can argue that makes them accountable to voters – which it does, in theory. But reality trumps theory.
Most voters don't know judicial candidates, even by reputation. That's a risky way to run a justice system. This year's Mecklenburg District Court elections provide good reasons why.
“Neither should be a judge.” “This is enough to make me cry.” “An absolute mockery … ” Those remarks came in background interviews with judges and lawyers well-acquainted with Mecklenburg courts and judicial candidates. In too many races this year, the choices are between “unqualified” or “intemperate” – or “lousy” and “even worse.”
One especially troublesome race pits District Court Judge Ben Thalheimer and William “Bill” Belk. Belk, a millionaire from the local retail family, has a law degree but has hardly practiced law. And he looks to be running a grudge campaign.
Belk has openly said he's running because he's angry over his treatment by judges during his lengthy divorce case. One cited him for contempt; the day the contempt order arrived Belk went to Raleigh and filed to run. He aims to unseat Thalheimer, who was, he told the Observer, “the worst.” Thalheimer, one of three judges in the case, awarded child custody to Belk's ex-wife plus a majority of the couple's $5 million joint estate.
Belk's right when he says the state justice system has flaws. And while Thalheimer, a judge since 2003, is a hard-worker he also has a reputation as erratic, and he isn't a vigorous campaigner.
But Belk has neither the temperament nor legal grounding to fix anything in the justice system. Further, if he succeeds in ousting Thalheimer – and because he can afford plenty of signs and ads, he might well win – that could send a chilling message to other judges: Don't anger rich, influential people whose cases come before you or they'll use their money and influence to kick you out of office. That's the opposite of what a justice system should be.
Belk, even as a not-very-practiced lawyer, should know better. That he doesn't shows he's not the kind of person you want as judge.
We recommend Ben Thalheimer.