District judge’s retirement leads to 4-candidate Mecklenburg race

The incumbent

Mecklenburg Judge Charlotte Brown-Williams, who is retiring.

The candidates

Only the top two vote-getters in the March 15 primary will appear on the November ballot for the District 26 seat. The candidates are:

▪ Aretha Blake, a former Charlotte School of Law dean who is now president of the Mecklenburg Bar Foundation. This is her first try at political office

▪ Faith Fickling, a Legal Aid attorney and former Peace Corp worker who is also seeking a judge’s seat for the first time.

▪ Paulina Havelka, a Polish immigrant and sole practitioner who unsuccessfully ran for Mecklenburg clerk of court in 2014.

▪ Tracy Hewett, a longtime public defender making her second race for a seat on the court.

About the office

The county has 21 District Court judges who hear civil and misdemeanor criminal cases, along with matters involving child custody, divorce and juvenile defendants. In most cases, the judge also serves as jury – delivering a verdict at the end of testimony. Judicial elections in North Carolina are considered nonpartisan.

About the candidates

The N.C. Bar Association rating, in which the candidates’ peers assess them on a five-point scale for integrity and impartiality, legal ability, professionalism, communication and administrative skills, scores Blake at 3.91; Fickling at 4.34; Havelka at 3.50; and Hewett at 4.07.

Here’s more about the four. Their answers have been edited for space.

Aretha Blake

Why are you running? Blake says her 14-year legal career in Mecklenburg County has been grounded in volunteerism, free legal help and community service. She is president of the Mecklenburg Bar Foundation and has served as board chairman of the McCrorey YMCA in west Charlotte. She says she wants to use that experience and her legal background to make District Court more effective.

Most important trait for a judge? Temperament. “Each day a judge must be prepared to deal fairly and consistently with a wide variety of case facts, personalities, and difficult decisions.”

Most important case? Helping students.

Blake once volunteered to represent children faced with suspension and expulsion. “These cases were important to me personally because I was able to ensure that each child received due process.”

Largest frustration with the Mecklenburg courts, and can a judge help? People defending themselves.

The increasing number of “pro se” litigants who represent themselves can make the courts slower and less efficient, she says. As judge, Blake says she would help connect the community to resources that would “better equip” them for court.

Faith Fickling

Why are you running? “The law demands equal access to justice, and I’ve dedicated my career as an attorney to this ideal. I view this office as a natural progression of my career as a public servant.”

Most important trait for a judge? Fairness. Fickling says that includes impartiality, knowledge of the law and thoughtful deliberations.

Most important case? Victims of domestic violence. “My clients have been slapped, punched, shot, raped, stalked, controlled and belittled by their abusers. ... I consider each of my domestic violence cases as the most important case I’ve been involved with.”

What is your biggest frustration with the Mecklenburg courts, and can a judge help? Lack of resources. In particular she cites the county’s “self-serve center,” which helps residents access the courts better but only has only one full-time paid employee. As a judge, Fickling pledged to work to make the courts more efficient and accessible.

Paulina Havelka

Why are you running? “I have thought about this since I sat in District Court for the first time in 1997. I have a passion for the law and the people of our community.”

Most important trait for a judge? The integrity of a judge is the keystone of the judicial system. Judicial temperament, on the other hand, shows qualities of patience, open mindedness, courtesy, tactfulness, firmness, understanding, compassion and humility.”

Most important case? A custody case in which DSS has removed a son from the family. Mom was a drug addict and dad, although working hard and not using, had a criminal record. We both fought so hard to get his son back home, and eventually we did. … The hug and praise I received from dad years later reminded me of why I do what I do.”

What your biggest frustration with the Mecklenburg courts and can a judge help? Inconsistency. “I believe the system needs more consistency in general. I have seen first hand how such inconsistencies will eventually lead to bigger issues which could have been prevented.”

Tracy Hewett

Why are you running now? Hewett says she’s has the most criminal-law experience in the field. Given that district court judges serve as judge and jury, she says she is well versed in constitutional issues, evidence, witness credibility and judicial decisions.

Most important trait for a judge?To be a patient and active listener with knowledge of the law and an ability to understand and communicate with people from all walks of life.”

Most important case? She keeps a posted note on her refrigerator from a social worker at her office. It reads: “The client today said to thank you for caring about her and having us to talk. She said she didn't have any more hope to go on, but now she does.”

Biggest frustration with the courts and can a judge help? Wasted time and money.

“I vow to be in court on time, bringing my demonstrated work ethic with me to set an expectation of timeliness and efficiency in disposing cases.”

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

Aretha Blake

Age: 37.

Family: a daughter, Blake, 8.

Party: Democrat.

Educational background: Florida State University; University of Georgia law.

Favorite movie about the law or the courts:Miracle on 34th Street” (1947 version).

Faith Fickling

Age: 36.

Family: Three nieces, ages 17, 15 and 1.

Party: Democrat

Education: American University; Syracuse University law.

Favorite movie about the laws or the courts:Erin Brockovich.”

Paulina Havelka

Age: 41

Family: Married with three adult children

Party: Republican.

Educational background: Central Piedmont Community College, UNC Charlotte, Appalachian School of Law.

Political experience: Ran unsuccessfully for GOP nomination for clerk of court in 2014.

Favorite movie involving the law or the courts:A Few Good Men.”

Tracy Hewett

Age: 57

Family: Married with three grown children, two grandsons and a third due in June.

Education: UNC Charlotte, N.C. Central law.

Political experience: Unsuccessful try for District Court in 2012.

Favorite movie(s) involving the law or the courts:  ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is the benchmark movie modeling the work of a public defender. ‘My Cousin Vinny’ shows how innocent people can get caught up in the system and how the law can work.”