The N.C. Bar Association’s first publicly released performance evaluation of judge candidates seems to have held little, if any, sway over voters during the May 8 primary election.
Many judge hopefuls who received low ratings in the evaluation ended up taking the highest number of votes in their races, beating out opponents who were viewed as better jurists by thousands of lawyers who took part in the NCBA survey.
The NCBA released its judicial performance evaluation survey of incumbent judge candidates in January and followed it up in April with a similar rating of non-incumbent candidates. The surveys are the only nonpartisan voter education resources of their kind in the state.
Of the nearly 20,000 practicing lawyers across the state who were invited to participate, 4,278 responded to the first survey and 2,649 answered the second. They were asked to rate District Court and Superior Court judge candidates on a one-to-five scale, with five being “excellent” and one being “poor,” on integrity and impartiality, legal ability, professionalism, communication, administrative skills and overall performance.
When non-incumbent District Court judge candidate Amy E. Allred of Forsyth County first saw the results of the evaluation she was disappointed to discover that she had the lowest overall rating of her five opponents.
“But I did not let that affect me and my campaign,” said Allred, a family law and criminal defense lawyer in Lewisville. “I don’t believe the survey has much merit.”
Apparently, she was right. Allred took 22.6 percent of the vote, coming in second in the District 21 race behind opponent David E. Sipprell, whom she’ll face in the general election. Allred had an overall performance rating of 2.41, while Sipprell’s was 4.31. Another candidate in the same race, Richard D. Ramsey, also had a 4.31 overall rating, and he received 18.5 percent of the vote.
“I don’t think it has any influence on voters,” Allred said of the evaluation. “I don’t think it’s reflective of how myself or Mr. Sipprell would handle the District Court judge position.”
Of the 14 judicial primary races, at least 10 had candidates who prevailed in the election even though they had relatively low evaluations compared to their opponents.
In the District 12 race for the open bench in Cumberland County District Court, candidate Luis Olivera won with 32.7 percent of the vote, despite having an overall performance rating of 2.98. His three opponents all rated at or above 3.7.
In the race for a Superior Court judgeship in Guilford County’s District 18E, the candidate who had the highest overall performance rating of all 13 non-incumbent Superior Court judge hopefuls statewide ended up with the fewest votes among his opponents.
Manning A. Connors III had a 4.76 rating but only took 13.8 percent of the vote. He lost to Robert Enochs, who rated 3.9 overall in the survey and won with 26.5 percent of the vote, and Jason B. Crump, who had a 4.03 rating and 14.3 percent of the vote.
Connors, a Greensboro lawyer, did not return a message seeking comment, but in an April phone interview he said the survey was an “important tool” for voters. Like several other candidates who had high ratings, he had posted a link to the survey on his Facebook page in an attempt to get the results out to voters.
The NCBA counted on candidates publicizing the survey through social networking websites. It also relied on the media to help spread word of the evaluation to voters. And while the ratings have gotten play in some local and regional newspapers, it’s impossible to know how many people studied the numbers before heading to the polls.
Judging by the primary results, however, it seems that the majority of voters either were not aware of the judicial performance ratings — which are available on the NCBA’s website — or they did see the ratings and were unaffected.
“We’ve got some good information here [in the performance evaluation], but there’s no direct correlation to be made that the scores are going to predict how the election turns out,” said the NCBA’s assistant executive director, David A. Bohm.
“The information was out there and it was accessed,” he added, “but I don’t think we had a lot of people pick up on it in the sense of the primary election. There is some ground to be made for the marketing effort.”
The NCBA will update the evaluations to reflect the results of the primary, whittling away those candidates who did not make the cut. It also plans to ramp up efforts to make voters aware of the evaluations before they head back to the polls on Nov. 6, said NCBA spokesman Russell Rawlings.
“Our challenge now is to get the word out to the public between now and the general election,” he said.
The full incumbent and non-incumbent judicial candidate surveys are available online at judicialelections.ncbar.org.