A big change in how judges are elected will shake up Mecklenburg County’s judicial elections this year, and careers are at stake.
District court judges have traditionally been elected countywide. But the legislature this year divided the county into eight new districts. So judges, who serve the whole county, will be elected by a small fraction of voters. (We and others suspect that this was done to help Republicans get elected, even though partisanship has no place on the local bench.)
Mecklenburg voters will elect five judges in contested races on Nov. 6 – four District Court judges and one Superior Court judge. Here’s how we see the races.
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Eight-year incumbent District Court Judge Donald Cureton is being challenged by Paulina Havelka. Cureton, a Democrat, is widely regarded as one of the most qualified judges in Mecklenburg. In an NC Bar Association survey of lawyers, his scores were higher than any other judge on the Mecklenburg ballot. He leads Mecklenburg’s youth treatment court and is level-headed. Even his opponent says she admires his competency and experience.
Havelka, a Republican, is a pleasant person who has run unsuccessfully for office multiple times. She said she decided to run because she saw an opportunity when this Republican-friendly district was drawn. She is a fine lawyer, but Cureton is the superior choice.
Sean Smith, also an eight-year incumbent judge, is being challenged by attorney Sabrina Blain, who does family law and other work. Smith, a Republican, is widely seen as prickly, uncordial – and as a very competent judge. His scores in the Bar Association survey were much higher than Blain’s, which were by far the lowest of any of this year’s Mecklenburg judicial candidates.
Smith, a family court judge, knows the law well and is demanding of those before him. Blain, a Democrat, says she was motivated to run against him because she didn’t like the way he treated her in his courtroom. She moved shortly before the election; the Mecklenburg Board of Elections and a judge ruled against her voter registration, but the state Board of Elections ruled that she should remain on the ballot.
Smith is the better candidate in this race.
Incumbent District Court Judge Alicia Brooks seeks a second term and is being challenged by criminal lawyer Michael Stading. Brooks has been an effective judge, and we believe Stading would be too. We give the nod to Brooks because of her experience and performance on the bench.
Brooks, a Democrat, was a public defender, an assistant DA who prosecuted homicides and a private-practice lawyer for 14 years before being elected judge in 2014. She is widely respected in the Mecklenburg courthouse as competent and well-rounded. She made a campaign finance reporting mistake in her 2014 campaign but worked with the Board of Elections to make things right.
Stading, a Republican, is widely seen as a strong criminal lawyer. A former assistant DA who now does criminal defense work in private practice, he has earned his specialist certification in criminal law. He has argued before dozens of juries and is always well-prepared.
He would make a fine judge, but we give Brooks the edge.
Karen McCallum and Khalif Rhodes, two Democrats, are battling to replace outgoing judge Becky Tin. We believe McCallum is the better choice.
An Army veteran, she is a senior prosecutor in the DA’s office and has won the endorsement of her boss, DA Spencer Merriweather. Earlier, she was an effective public defender. McCallum has a firm grasp of the law and how to run an efficient courtroom.
Rhodes is Mecklenburg’s chief magistrate. He has many fans in Mecklenburg legal circles, and we think he is smart, passionate and competent. We are concerned, though, by how he and his office treat people accused of violent crimes. Frequently, Rhodes merely issues summons to such defendants rather than arresting them and holding them in custody under bond. We support bond reform but believe Rhodes goes too far. It also gives us pause that the state board of elections shut down his campaign for a few months for failure to file certain reports, and he was guilty of failing to file a tax return in Pennsylvania years ago.
In the county’s one Superior Court race, Democrats Reggie McKnight and Howard Clark and Republican George Bell are vying for an open seat.
Of the three, McKnight has the most courtroom experience and by far the most experience in Superior Court. He handles complex criminal litigation and has been named to the capital defender list, a select group of lawyers qualified to represent first-degree murder defendants who can’t afford their own attorney.
Bell was a generalist who now does mostly criminal work. He is an effective lawyer, but acknowledges that he does most of his work in district court and that McKnight has more experience in superior court. He argues, though, that he has more experience in civil law than McKnight.
Clark, a former social studies teacher, has been a lawyer for about seven years, working as a public defender.
We believe McKnight is the strongest choice.
Read the Observer editorial board’s endorsements in other races here.