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Appeals court contest brings rare endorsement from ex-justices

By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

sylvia.adcock@nc.lawyersweekly.com

The yard signs aren’t up yet. But the websites are up and running as candidates for  North Carolina’s appellate courts put together their – as usual –  low-key campaigns. The November ballot will feature one contested Supreme Court seat and three incumbent Court of Appeals judges fighting to keep their spots.

But one race in particular is drawing more attention than usual – a Court of Appeals battle pitting a sitting judge against a 2005 law school graduate who has never practiced law. Steven Walker, a legal clerk at the N.C. Supreme Court, is challenging Court of Appeals Judge Rick Elmore.

The race has brought a rare endorsement from four former chief justices representing a range of political views who are openly critical of what they call Walker’s lack of experience.

In a letter endorsing Elmore, the former chief justices say the race is one that “should concern us.” Regarding Walker, they wrote:

“He has never practiced law or represented a client in a case. He finished law school just five years ago. … He clearly lacks the experience needed and expected of an appellate court judge.”

The letter was signed by former chief justices James G. Exum Jr., Henry E. Frye, Burley B. Mitchell Jr. and I. Beverly Lake Jr.

Walker countered that he doesn’t need to have practiced law to be an appellate judge and said his time clerking for Justice Edward Thomas Brady gives him ample experience with the system.

“If you look at what appellate courts do, you don’t try cases, you don’t decide facts – you decide questions of law,” he said. “For five years I’ve been reading Court of Appeals Cases and talking to a Supreme Court justice about them. I think that’s pretty good experience. … The way I explain it to people is, I’m an attorney and my only client is Justice Brady.”

Elmore said that when he talks to voters, “prior legal experience seems to be on the minds of everyone I talk to. People say, we appreciate our judges having practical experience in our courts.”

Elmore was in private practice 20 years before taking a seat on the bench in 2002. He said that his background has helped him when he is reviewing motions and arguments and writing opinions.

“I can relate to the legal environment of the courtroom itself,” he said.

Former Chief Justice Mitchell said the letter from the former chief justices came about as a collaborative effort among the four. Mitchell said he was already supporting Elmore even before the primary when Walker knocked out two competitors.

Of Walker, he said, “The young man is a fine young man,” but said that what he called Elmore’s proven ability to handle the workload was another point in his favor.

Mitchell noted that he was 36 when he became an appeals court judge.

“We’ve had some very young judges,” he said. But by the age of 36, Mitchell had already served as a district attorney as an assistant attorney general.

The issue of whether judges should be elected or appointed comes up periodically, and this race may once again bring it to the forefront.

“There is great uneasiness with the elections,” said Joe Sinsheimer, a former political consultant. “Voters don’t have very much information. There’s not a lot of scrutiny.”

State Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat from Raleigh, said the appellate court races could trigger another look at judicial selection in North Carolina.

“We will watch the judicial races with great interest and come next year potentially revisit the process if we feel like it is not serving justice and the people,” said Stein, who is vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary I Committee.

The N.C. Constitution specifies that judges are to be elected, so any change would require an amendment.

Judge Elmore said he thinks the General Assembly should consider imposing qualifications on judicial candidates, such as “a term of years as a practicing attorney.” That may be considered, he said, “given the circumstances of this race.”

For those who are interested in getting to know more about the candidates, the Federalist Society is sponsoring two forums in September.

Robert Shaw of Williams Mullen in Raleigh, who is chairman of the Triangle Federalist Society, said the moderators will ask the same questions of each candidate. He emphasized that the events will not be debates, although the moderator will have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions. He said organizers are attempting to devise questions that will be meaningful to attorneys as well as understandable by the general public.

The only Supreme Court race on the ballot will create an opening on the N.C. Court of Appeals, with two appeals court judges running for the seat of Justice Brady, who is retiring.

Judges Robert C. Hunter and Barbara Jackson are vying for that seat; Gov. Bev. Purdue will appoint a judge to fill whichever vacancy created on the appeals court.

Last week Purdue appointed Cressie Thigpen to fill the spot of appeals court Judge James A. Wynn Jr., who is now on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Thigpen was expected to file for election last week, and the state Board of Elections opened a special one-week filing period for anyone who wants to run against him. The deadline is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31. A number of candidates are expected, meaning the state will likely have to employ its “instant runoff” procedure in which voters will rank candidates in terms of preference.

In the other two contested Court of Appeals races, Anne Marie Calabria is running against Wake County District Judge Jane Gray to hold onto her seat, and incumbent Martha A. Geer faces a challenge from Dean R. Poirier, an appeals referee with the N.C. Employment Security Commission. Judge Sanford A. Steelman Jr. is unopposed.

The first forum, sponsored by the Piedmont Triad Federalist Society, will be Tuesday, Sept. 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Winston-Salem Marriott on North Cherry Street, with a reception at 6:30 p.m. Bob Buckley of WGHP in Greensboro will moderate.

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, the second forum will held at 7 p.m. at the Raleigh Marriott City Center on Fayetteville Street, with a reception beginning at 6 p.m. Former Justice Willis Whichard will act as moderator.

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