Bill Belk hasn't had much luck with judges.
In a marathon divorce case, one denied him custody of his children. Another awarded his ex-wife a majority of their $5 million joint estate. And in February, a third found him in contempt and threatened to slap him in jail.
On the day Belk got the contempt order – for failing to give his ex-wife tickets to a North Carolina football game – he went to Raleigh and filed to run for judge. His fall opponent: Ben Thalheimer, the Mecklenburg County judge who presided over the long and costly property phase of his divorce.
District Court seems an unlikely career move for a scion of Charlotte's most prominent retail family, a millionaire socialite who lives in a gated community and enjoys foreign travel and fine wine. The workload is heavy and complex, even tedious. The starting pay is $106,445.
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“I'm not running just for District Court,” Belk says. “I'm running to reform the system.”
Critics call it sour grapes. Some warn his bid could have a chilling effect on judges who rule in cases involving rich litigants who could threaten their careers.
It's one of more than a dozen contested court races facing Mecklenburg voters. All are nonpartisan and relatively obscure, certain to be eclipsed by higher-profile campaigns and more likely to be decided by name recognition than issues.
“There are no safe District Court seats anymore,” says retired Judge Chase Saunders. “All one can hope for is an informed electorate.”
Belk, 58, got his law degree in 1983 but rarely practiced until representing himself during part of his divorce case. He says the court system treated him unfairly, and he details complaints about all three judges in his case.
“What they did to me was educate me on the system,” he says. “And the system needs to be changed.”
Thalheimer, 55, suggests Belk's motives are more personal.
“Strongly contested hearings … tend to exacerbate the emotional trauma that comes with the dissolution of a marriage,” he says. “The real focus in (November) is who is best qualified to handle the demanding responsibility of ruling in critical domestic cases.”
Little in common
At 6-feet-5, Belk is almost a foot taller than Thalheimer. The contrasts go beyond appearances.
Belk is the first-born grandson of the founder of Belk's department stores and the nephew of former Charlotte mayor John Belk. He has a master's degree in business in addition to his law degree. He spent more than a decade running the family store in Columbia. A one-time rugby player, he's garrulous and hard-charging.
In 1986, at 36, he ran for U.S. Senate. After boasting that former Gov. Terry Sanford would drop out of the Democratic primary and support him, he finished far behind with less than 5 percent of the vote. He went on to lose a 1994 race for Mecklenburg commissioner, and has since become a Republican.
Thalheimer, earnest and serious, has bounced between business and law.
With a degree in industrial management and a masters in business administration, he worked for Procter & Gamble before taking over his father's cable TV business in Boone. He went on to law school and worked three years with Charlotte attorney Bill Diehl. Then he bought a business that did paramedical exams for insurance companies.
He returned to law as a part-time criminal magistrate in 1993 and later became a small claims magistrate. Named to the district bench in 2003, he was elected a year later.
“I love it,” Thalheimer says of family court. “It's my niche. It's very intellectually challenging. I like hearing the stories.”
By the time Thalheimer got to district court, Bill and Suzanne Belk were already there.
The two had met long before, at a debutante affair on Long Island. After a 24-year marriage, they separated in 2001.
Overseeing the early part of their case was Judge Lou Trosch who, in December 2002, gave Suzanne full custody of their three children. Belk, he wrote, “voluntarily abdicated his role” in their lives.
“I walked out of there shocked that just because I'm active in various civic organizations that I had abdicated my role,” Belk says.
Property distribution fell to Thalheimer.
And according to court records, there was a lot of property to split.
A lengthy property trial
The couple lived in Morrocroft in a 10,000-square-foot house that took two years to build. It had a swimming pool, wine cellar, clay tennis court and movie theater with leather chairs bolted to the floor. Art and antiques filled the house.
The Belks sent their kids to private school. They took ski trips. Belk often traveled alone to places such as Europe or Africa, one year spending a total of six months on the road, court documents say. The couple, Suzanne's attorney told the court, “maintained a lavish lifestyle to which (she) became accustomed.”
A property trial started in late 2003. It included 900 exhibits, some running to hundreds of pages, detailing financial and other holdings. It wasn't until 2006, after navigating 24 years of complex stock sales and splits, that Thalheimer finally ruled.
His 79-page order divided the stuff of a quarter-century marriage, including the Chippendale doll house, zebra skin rug, mounted heads of an antelope, eland and two “foreign goats,” and even a high-back, antique chair with its seat cut out. It was used over a toilet.
Thalheimer noted that Belk's wealth came mainly from family gifts and inheritances.
“(He) did not have to struggle in the workplace to provide economic support for his family,” the judge wrote. “(He) also traveled extensively, effectively diminishing his contribution to the social structure of the family.” Suzanne, the judge added, “shouldered a disproportionate partnership burden.”
He awarded her 52 percent of the $4.9 million in divisible assets, including $1.6 million in cash.
Belk says his situation was typical of families with a working husband and a stay-at-home mom. He disputes the way Thalheimer calculated assets before dividing them.
Recusal bid rebuffed
Three months earlier, Belk had tried to get Thalheimer off the case.
Representing himself at the time, he sought the judge's recusal. Among other things, he noted that Thalheimer once worked with Diehl, who had briefly represented Belk's wife. He also said the judge dated a woman who worked with one of Suzanne's attorneys.
A year before, in 2005, Belk had gone after Diehl.
He ran an Observer classified ad saying he had been “the victim of (Diehl's) inappropriate use of our court system.” He solicited “others who feel they have had similar experiences” for a possible lawsuit. No suits materialized.
Thalheimer refused to remove himself.
In a response, he said he hadn't worked for Diehl's firm for 13 years and that although he dated a paralegal in the office of Suzanne's lawyer, the relationship had ended and posed no conflict.
After Thalheimer's 2006 distribution ruling, the case was transferred to Judge Christy Mann.
In February, she listened to the couple bicker before finding Belk in contempt. His offense? Failing to give his ex-wife tickets to a football game between North Carolina and Miami.
Suzanne said she never got the tickets, which were in possession of a third party. Belk maintained that he offered her the tickets but she refused.
“Y'all stop arguing,” Mann said impatiently at one point.
“Folks, I've got serious stuff I deal with here,” she went on. “I take babies away from their mamas and … I have little 8-year-olds being raped by 12-year-olds … and for me to have to spend an hour going after these tickets, it's just God-awful.”
Mann ordered Belk to jail unless he paid his ex-wife's attorney fees and gave her four tickets to the North Carolina-Duke basketball game.
‘The system is broken'
Belk talks of conspiracy, and says case records have mysteriously disappeared. He claims he was “set up” on the contempt charge.
“Obviously, Christy Mann was trying to influence this election right before I was filing,” he says.
Mann declined comment.
Belk saves his sharpest criticism for Thalheimer, who he calls “the worst.” He points to questionable decisions in his case as well as the four times the state appeals court faulted Thalheimer's rulings and sent other cases back.
“When the Court of Appeals remands you, they're saying you made a major mistake,” Belk says. “The question is not whether he should be judge. It's whether he should be disbarred.”
According to Mecklenburg's Family Court administrator, Thalheimer has been assigned over 2,100 cases in five years and heard hundreds more originally assigned to other judges. Thalheimer estimates he has handled more than 10,000 in all.
“To have only four cases sent back from the Court of Appeals for further consideration is a record I am happy to stand behind,” he says. “I do not want to get into a mud-slinging match with Mr. Belk.”
Belk, who remarried last year, has not appealed his case.
If elected, he says he would try to persuade legislators to change laws involving judges. He wants to speed up cases, prevent judges from ruling on their own recusals, and mandate regular drug testing of court officials. If an appeals court remands a ruling, he says, the case should go to another judge in a different county.
“The system is broken,” he says. “It destroys people. It destroys kids. It creates meanness.”
Belk said he'll raise money for the race – and spend his own.
Thalheimer raised $3,578 through mid-April.
Asked if he would serve an entire four-year term, Belk says, “Probably.”
Praise and worries
Belk says he has filed a complaint with the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, where such complaints are confidential. Executive director Paul Ross says Thalheimer has never been the subject of disciplinary hearings.
Several Charlotte lawyers who regularly appear in family court declined to discuss the race or the candidates. But most describe Thalheimer as hardworking and fair.
The Rev. Carol “Pinky” Bender, a longtime friend of Belk's, says Belk sees his campaign as a way to give back.
“He sees this as a way to improve the community,” she says. “I think he sees this as an extension of his desire to see Charlotte be the best it can be.”
Tom Bush, a former Mecklenburg commissioner who practices in family court, says he's troubled.
“You don't want to ever be in a position where our judges are fearful of ruling because they're afraid of being challenged by an unhappy litigant who may have power in the community,” says Bush, whose law partner represented Suzanne Belk in the earliest stage of the case.
Retired District Court Judge Jane Harper says she would be concerned if Belk is running just because of his experience in court.
“Sometimes everybody leaves the courtroom unhappy, both the lawyers, both the litigants,” she says. “It's not the job of a District Court judge to make people happy. It's his job or her job to do the right thing in the case.”