Community forum hears Mecklenburg judicial candidates

Theo Nixon took every opportunity Tuesday to tout his work experience and his knowledge of the community – particularly when it comes to the proper pronunciation of its geographic landmarks. In this case, Beatties Ford Road.

“I know the difference between Beeties Ford Road and Bayties Ford Road ,” said Nixon, an incumbent Mecklenburg district judge and a Charlotte native, in front of about 50 voters and community activists gathered in west Charlotte.

“But do you have a connection with Beatties Ford Road?” a questioner shot back.

That brief exchange captured one of the recurring themes of the 90-minute judicial forum sponsored by the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, the venerable weekly gathering on the city’s westside to discuss the issues of the day.

Tuesday’s gathering drew six judicial candidates on the November ballot. And to a person, each spoke of the tension between knowing the law and knowing the community you serve.

Half the candidates on hand are vying for the District 26B seat on Mecklenburg Superior Court. They include John Bowers, who was appointed Monday to fill the vacant seat through the end of the year and now hopes to win a full six-year term in November.

The Republican – the only one on hand to answer questions from the heavily Democratic audience – was joined by two of his Democratic opponents: Charlotte attorneys Carla Archie and Eric Montgomery. (The fourth member of that field – Assistant District Attorney David Kelly – did not attend.).

Those three were joined by Nixon, a Charlotte attorney appointed to the bench by former Gov. Beverly Perdue, and his opponent, Yolanda Trotman of Huntersville, a former teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools who now has her own law practice.

Alicia Brooks, whose legal career includes stints as both a public defender and a prosecutor, also spoke. She faces incumbent Mecklenburg District Court Judge Casey Viser in the fall.

The 90-minute forum featured a lively exchange between the audience and the candidates over such issues as black-on-black crime, alternatives to jail and prison, and the roles judges should play in everything from mentoring young people to bettering the communities they serve.

Archie said any personal connections a judge may possess must be balanced by an unbiased application of the law. She drew laughter when she compared the task to settling a dispute between a cat and a dog.

“I’m a dog person, I don’t like cats,” she said. “But if a cat comes into my courtroom, I can’t do for that cat any differently than I do for the dog. The law is the great equalizer.”

Trotman said all judges must be willing to meet the public outside their courtrooms – “to understand the everyday problems you face.”

In addressing many of the broader issues raised by the audience, Montgomery said solutions may lie in “re-creating the village” to more effectively raise children. That, he said, heads off problems before they reach the courthouse.

Brooks said the court system must be more accessible and proactive.

Looking for solutions

“The system is broken if I’ve got the father, the son and the grandson as clients,” Brooks said. “If I’ve got a client sitting in jail for two years waiting for a trial and then he’s found not guilty, the system is broken.”

Bowers, also a Charlotte native, said many of the issues cited by the audience were bigger than the courts. He cited his personal roles as a Sunday school teacher and a CMS parent as ways he’s working to make the community better. The community, in turn, “must do a better job of teaching personal responsibility.”

Nixon said one of the biggest problems holding the courts back is the lack of money. The legislature, which Nixon says gives the courts 1.47 percent of the state’s budget, “is strangling us to death. ... If you don’t put gas in the car, the car isn’t going to go.”