For judge: Kearney, Hoover and Owens

District Courts handle misdemeanor crimes, traffic offenses, juvenile offenders, divorces and child custody, child support and civil cases of less than $10,000.

In Mecklenburg each year, some 226,000 criminal cases are heard in District Court. That doesn't count felonies or civil cases. That means a judge who's uninformed or slow can create big problems.

Unfortunately, voters aren't likely to know which judges are thoughtful, efficient and just. Sometimes, such as this year, the bench attracts candidates not up to the standard needed to serve the public well. As we've said before, North Carolina needs an appointive system of picking judges, one that lets voters decide whether to keep an appointed judge.

On Nov. 4, in addition to the Thalheimer-Belk race, six other contested District Court races are on the ballot. Ronald Chapman, Bill Constangy, Hugh Lewis, Christy Mann and Louis Trosch are running unopposed. Judicial elections are nonpartisan.

Stephen Kearney

Lawyer Stephen Kearney, a former assistant district attorney, faces lawyer Charlotte Brown-Williams.

Interviews with judges and lawyers familiar with both lead to this conclusion: Neither is suited to be a judge. But one of them will be. It should be Kearney.

Brown-Williams is a charming, outgoing and energetic campaigner. But people familiar with her work have serious reservations about her understanding of criminal and family law, or even how the legal system works.

Kearney is the better choice. Some worry he lacks the temperament a judge needs. He has a reputation for blowing up in court, and District Court will try the patience of a saint. Kearney says he knows of the concern and has matured. We recommend Stephen Kearney.

Donnie Hoover

This is another worrisome contest. Incumbent Judge Donnie Hoover, appointed in January, faces Daniel Roberts, a Union County prosecutor.

No one questions Hoover's legal know-how, but judges and lawyers say he has difficulty working quickly enough to get through daily dockets. That makes problems for people who appear – and who work – in his court.

Roberts, 30, has only four years' experience practicing law, all criminal law. Those who know him say he's smart and decent.

We aren't comfortable recommending ousting a new judge without giving him more time to learn to manage caseloads. If he's still pokey when up for election next time, voters should reconsider.

Roberts should hold onto his goal of one day being a judge. But we endorse Donnie Hoover.

Fritz Mercer

Chief District Court Judge Fritz Mercer faces lawyer John Totten. This call is easy.

Totten has a reputation as someone who often doesn't show up in court. Also, a 2006 Observer investigation found he was one of several court-appointed lawyers who billed for jail visits with clients at times when the lawyers' names weren't listed on jail visit logs.

Voters should choose Fritz Mercer.

Thomas Moore

This race is another in which each candidate has strengths, yet significant flaws.

Moore, a former Mecklenburg district attorney who then spent 16 years in corporate law, has been a judge since 2003.

He wins both praise and criticism for his courtroom demeanor, which many say is disrespectful. He has a reputation for favoring prosecutors over defense lawyers, and we're uncomfortable with any judge who has a reputation for favoring any side. Yet he's also praised as hard-working. He co-chairs the Criminal Courts Committee.

His opponent, Gary Henderson, is a child support enforcement attorney who's praised for his demeanor but criticized as too slow in processing cases. His background, almost all in child support enforcement, is narrower than we'd prefer.

We recommend Thomas Moore. Voters uncomfortable with his reputation as a “cop in a robe” should consider Henderson an alternative.

Todd Owens

Judge Todd Owens is being challenged by lawyer Kimberly Best. Owens is the better choice.

He was elected judge in 2004 and is praised for hard work and legal know-how, but got an early reputation for “black robe disease” – that is, treating people angrily and being prone to outbursts. However, a move from criminal to domestic court, where pressures are different, brings praise from those familiar with his work. He's an eager student of a complex legal area, and his courtroom demeanor has improved.

His opponent, lawyer Kimberly Best, offers no persuasive reason to oust Owens. We recommend Todd Owens.

Theo X. Nixon

Incumbent Judge Theo Nixon, appointed in April, is doing an excellent job and should stay on the bench. Challenger Elizabeth Trosch was up for the appointment too, and the filing deadline for this election came before Nixon won appointment. She isn't campaigning for the seat.