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Winston-Salem event starts discussion for appellate court races

By SYLVIA ADCOCK, Staff Writer

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Constitutional interpretation, judicial elections and contributory negligence were on the table – along with pitchers of ice water – as eight appellate court candidates gathered in Winston-Salem at a judicial forum that served as an unofficial kickoff of the campaign season.

The event, sponsored by the Federalist Society, brought together seven candidates for the Court of Appeals and one candidate running for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court.

The debate was civil and friendly. Incumbents took care to note their experience on the bench, while newcomers got an opportunity to voice their thoughts to the crowd of about 60 who gathered in a hotel ballroom on Sept. 7.

Bob Numbers, an attorney with Womble Carlyle who helped organize the event, said that although the races usually receive scant attention, these are important elections.

“The decisions made by the Court of Appeals impact the lives of North Carolina citizens every day in ways that people don’t realize,” Numbers said. And he noted that North Carolina is among a diminishing number of states that still rely on direct elections to seat judges.

“It’s even more important that voters take advantage of their rights and learn about the candidates,” he said.

The topic of judicial selection was the focus of several questions posed to members of the panel by moderator Bob Buckley of WGHP-TV, the FOX affiliate in Greensboro.

“It’s the will of the people,” said N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Barbara Jackson, who is running for the Supreme Court, when asked about judicial elections.

“But I have some grave concerns about the election of judges,” she said, looking out at the half-empty ballroom. “We don’t have a full house tonight. People don’t know who we are.”

She said some voters will pick a candidate who has an easy name to pronounce, adding that she’s been told she has a “good name.” Others will vote by gender or placement on the ballot, she said – and no one should be casting a ballot for those reasons.

Jackson’s opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Robert Hunter, declined to attend the forum.

Buckley asked incumbent Court of Appeals Judge Rick Elmore and his opponent Steven Walker if the state should continue to elect judges without party affiliation, which has been the case since 2004.

 “I think we should have a party label,” Walker replied. He said that while there are differences within the two parties, knowing if someone is a Democrat or a Republican did “give you some semblance of what a person stood for.”

Elmore agreed, noting that the issue of electing judges may be revisited this year. “If we are going to elect judges, there needs to be some indication of the party.” He added that he’d also like for the ballot to indicate who the incumbent is.

The pair was also asked when a judge should work with the “spirit of the law” versus the “letter of the law.”

Elmore, the incumbent, said that “there’s not a lot of room to inject the spirit of the law at our level. … We are bound by precedent.”

Walker, who has been working as a clerk to N.C. Supreme Court Justice Edward Brady for five years, said the judges should look beyond the letter of the law only when the “writing is not clear. … Most of the time the statutes and case law are unambiguous and the spirit is right there in the words.”

When Buckley asked the candidates what one thing they’d like to see to improve the justice system, most came back with a similar answer: More money for the third branch of government.

 Only Dean Poirier, who is running for Judge Martha Geer’s seat, said he’d like to transform the way lawyers are trained. Instead of reading cases, he said, students in law school should concentrate more on the statutes and the Constitution.

Geer said she agreed that lack of funding was a problem, and added that she’d like to see the judicial system do a better job addressing mental-health issues.

“We need better communication between legislature and the judicial system. I wish they would come to the courthouse,” said Judge Ann Marie Calabria, who is opposed by Wake County District Court Judge Jane Gray.

Gray said she’s concerned about the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

“It’s clear that there is an imbalance between those people who can afford attorneys and those who cannot,” she said. “We don’t have debtor’s courts but some days I wonder about it. I’ve seen people take a jail sentence because they couldn’t pay the fine and costs.”

As the forum wound up, the candidates were asked which U.S. Supreme Court justice they admired most. Many demurred.

Judge Sanford Steelman Jr., who is running unopposed for his seat, answered first by saying, “Every one of those people have baggage, and I am reluctant to carry their baggage.”

Geer concurred. “There’s no one I feel warm and fuzzy about,” with Jackson echoing, “They … each get demonized and canonized, and I’m reluctant to take on their angels and demons.”

A few were more specific.

Poirier said he greatly admires Justice Clarence Thomas; Walker and Calabria said they were both fans of Justice Antonin Scalia; Elmore said he admires Chief Justice John Roberts and told of meeting him when the justice visited N.C. Central University. Gray said she doesn’t identify with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s judicial philosophy, but that she is a “fascinating woman … not an ideologue.”

One question brought a laugh from the crowd. Buckley asked about televising Court of Appeals arguments. “If the public wants to watch it,” Gray said.

The second judicial forum will be Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Marriott in downtown Raleigh. A reception will begin at 6 p.m. The Federalist Society plans to hold a separate forum for the 13 candidates who have filed to run for the seat created when Judge James Wynn was appointed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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