2 easy calls, 1 tough one in judicial races

The Observer editorial board

Three Mecklenburg District Court seats are contested in the November election.
Three Mecklenburg District Court seats are contested in the November election. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

If you’ve ever been divorced, had a teenager who got in trouble, been involved in a small civil dispute or been the victim of a minor crime, you might have visited Mecklenburg County District Court.

It is the people’s court, handling family law, juvenile justice, criminal misdemeanors and civil cases involving less than $25,000. Twelve of Mecklenburg’s 21 District Court judges are on the November ballot. Nine of the 12 are unopposed.

It’s important that voters thoughtfully consider the three contested races. A fair, efficient court system is essential to a healthy community, and we need the most qualified judges in place to make that happen.

We think two of the three local judicial contests are fairly easy calls. The third is difficult. Here’s how we see the races.

Mann vs. Bell

Judge Christy Mann was appointed to the bench in 2005 and has been elected twice since. Huntersville lawyer George Bell challenges her.

Mann is one of the more highly regarded judges in Mecklenburg’s courts. With 20 years in private practice and 11 years on the bench, she serves as the senior family court judge. An expert in family law, she teaches classes to lawyers around the state and mentors new judges. Lawyers who appear before her applaud her legal ability, the efficiency of her courtroom but also her patience and commitment to each case.

Bell graduated from Cornell and got his law degree from Regent University, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson to provide “Christian leadership to change the world.” He runs his own firm, primarily practicing in criminal and DWI defense. He has no judicial experience.

In a North Carolina Bar Association survey of lawyers, Mann scored significantly higher than Bell in each of five categories. Her overall score on a scale of 1 to 5 was 4.31; his was 3.69.

We recommend Christy Mann.

Strickland vs. Thalheimer

Judge David Strickland seeks a second term. He is challenged by Ben Thalheimer, a former judge now in private practice.

Strickland has impressed court watchers in his first term. He is the lead juvenile court judge in Mecklenburg and also has presided in family court and in other areas. Prior to becoming a judge, he owned his own firm doing criminal and juvenile work. Those in the legal community commend his professionalism and integrity.

Thalheimer was the judge Bill Belk defeated in 2008. Thalheimer was the better choice in that race, but Strickland is the more adept candidate in this one. In the NCBA survey, Strickland was the highest-scoring Mecklenburg judge, with an overall score of 4.33. Thalheimer had the lowest score of any judge in a contested Mecklenburg race, at 3.09. We recommend David Strickland.

Blake vs. Hewett

This race is a much closer call for us than the other two. Aretha Blake and Tracy Hewett seek to replace Charlotte Brown-Williams, who is not running again.

Both Blake and Hewett are well-qualified. Each is an accomplished lawyer with a sharp mind, compassionate heart and a relevant, varied background.

Hewett has been a public defender in Charlotte since 2004, handling thousands of cases in District Court and hundreds in Superior Court. She drove a delivery truck at night to help pay her way through law school. In addition to her public defender work, Hewett has worked in the DWI and drug-treatment courts and volunteered as a guardian ad litem.

Blake, who grew up poor on Johns Island near Charleston, did a variety of civil litigation in two stints over about six years at Parker Poe. Between those stints, she started her own firm with now-Judge Ty Hands. She was also an assistant dean at Charlotte School of Law from 2011 to 2015. She has some experience in District Court, in part from pro bono work.

In the NCBA survey, Hewett had an overall score of 4.07; Blake had a 3.91.

Both of these candidates would be able judges. We give a slight nod to Hewett, mostly on the strength of her greater experience in District Court.