Yolanda Trotman said she has sat in the courtrooms of the judges she considered challenging for a seat as a N.C. District Judge.
She was disturbed by what she found in Judge Theo Nixon’s, she told a room full of law students, attorneys and members of the public at the Charlotte School of Law on Wednesday night.
“I was troubled by the way people were treated,” said Trotman, a former teacher who owns a law practice and opposes Nixon in the November race.
Incumbent Nixon fired back that he runs a strict, old-fashioned courtroom and values attorneys and defendants who show up in court on time.
“I don’t think I’ve seen Ms. Trotman in my courtroom half-a-dozen times in the last six years,” he said. “I’m a straight talker. I talk to people so they can understand what I’m telling them. I will put people in jail if they’re late.”
Trotman is a political newcomer, campaigning on promises of fairness from the bench. Nixon is counting on his experience. Both joined Alicia Brooks and incumbent District Court Judge Casey Viser for a forum sponsored by Justice Initiatives and moderated by the Observer’s Taylor Batten.
Nixon, a District Court judge since 2008 who frequently spoke of intervention and substance abuse programs he introduced from the bench, said Trotman had two advantages over him.
“She’s more of a politician than I am, and I’m more of a judge,” he said. “And youth – she’s 10 years older than my oldest son.”
Brooks detailed her 21 years of public service as an assistant public defender and owner of her own private practice, while Viser was transparent about his commitment to serve despite his disapproval of the election process for judges.
“I’m not pleased about the way judges are elected,” he said.
Neither is William Bell, an incumbent defending his seat as N.C. Superior Court judge against Justin Moore. Moore dropped out of the race but did not do so in time for his name to be removed from the ballot.
Earlier in the night, Bell and four other candidates for N.C. Superior Court gave the crowd reasons why they should be elected and elaborated on their stance on open courts and records and questions surrounding a judge’s objectivity when accepting money from private campaign donors.
“I abhor that judges are elected,” Bell said. “I think it’s wrong. I prefer we have a committee to appoint a slate of candidates and have a retention election four or five years down the road” that would allow voters to determine whether the judge should be replaced. If the judge is doing a good job, Bell said, then he would keep his seat.
John Bowers, an attorney and former N.C. Supreme Court clerk appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory to serve as a judge, agreed, saying candidates must change the public’s perception of any “impropriety” during elections. He addressed the court system’s “crisis with funding,” including a lack of court reporters and other essential personnel.
“We’re going to kill ourselves if we don’t find a way to address this,” he said.
Carla Archie, who has practiced both criminal and civil law, is running her campaign on character. Wednesday night, she told people in the audience that she “cares too much” and would likely spend “many a sleepless night wondering if I made the right decision.”
For Eric Montgomery, community engagement and granting the public access to justice was the theme of the night. After nearly each question, Montgomery, who started his own practice, stressed that judges need to know the people they serve.
David Kelly said the bulk of the cases tried in Superior Court are criminal cases. A Mecklenburg County prosecutor for the past decade, he said his experience trying homicides and other serious felonies best prepared him for the role.