Millionaire Bill Belk, of Charlotte's prominent retail family, acknowledges the impetus for his current run for District Court judge was his experience facing a few, including the judge he now seeks to unseat. In his long divorce case, judges denied him custody of his children and awarded his ex-wife a majority of their $5 million joint estate.
He was none too thrilled with his treatment, and especially the actions of Judge Ben Thalheimer, who presided over much of his case. Mr. Belk says the court system treated him unfairly, and it needs to be changed. He wants to do so from the inside, by winning the seat of the judge whose rulings gave him so much trouble.
Whether you believe Mr. Belk's motive for seeking the judgeship is revenge or public service, there are troubling aspects to this matter. Tom Bush, a lawyer and former chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, touched on one last week: “You don't want to ever be in a position where our judges are fearful of ruling because they're afraid of being challenged (in an election) by an unhappy litigant who may have power in the community.”
Also troubling is this: Mr. Belk rarely practiced law before his divorce. He wasn't even firm on his commitment to the job if elected. When asked if he would serve an entire four-year term, he said: “Probably.”
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He says if elected he wants 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. Some of these actions may have merit, but they are not the core job a District Court judge is elected to do.
This judgeship race underscores again the need for merit selection of judges, not elections where name recognition and fund-raising ability hold more sway in voters' minds than a candidate's knowledge of the law and other suitable qualifications.
As we've said many times before, North Carolina should adopt an appointive system of picking judges. More than a decade ago, a panel recommended to lawmakers that the state adopt merit appointment. Such a system could allow the governor to appoint judges from a list of three names selected by a neutral panel of lawyers and others. At the end of the judge's term, voters would decide whether to keep the judge.
That wouldn't eliminate political influence, or guarantee bad judges wouldn't be chosen. But it would prevent voters who know little about the candidates from electing someone because of a familiar name or a campaign financed with scads of money. It surely would prevent a dissatisfied litigant from seeking to unseat a judge simply because that judge ruled against him.