Shortly before the general election, a top N.C. Bar Association official said that voter participation in the judicial races would be a good indicator of whether people paid attention to its first ever publicly released performance evaluation of judge candidates.
Of course, many different factors drive voting trends, but the numbers of votes cast for judges on Nov. 6 was up this year in both the appellate court and District Court races compared to the 2008 general election.
“I think it’s encouraging when you see the numbers increasing. The more people you have voting the better,” said NCBA assistant executive director David A. Bohm. He added that he also received “overwhelmingly positive” feedback about the judge candidate ratings.
“We’ve learned that there is a need for this service,” he said. “The public is hungry for this information and we’re glad to provide it for them.”
The nonpartisan survey based on anonymous reviews from lawyers was the centerpiece of the association’s campaign to educate voters about trial court judge candidates and get more people interested in judicial elections — instead of skipping past them when filling out ballots.
The NCBA promoted the survey through social media, courted media coverage, took out ads in newspapers across the state and even produced a public service announcement and posted it online in hopes that it would spread among voters.
The survey was accessible through many different channels, from newspaper and TV station websites to candidates’ Facebook pages and the NCBA’s website, which attracted 21,415 unique visitors.
The publicity push seems to have paid off. The heated Supreme Court race between Sam J. Ervin IV and incumbent Paul M. Newby drew more than 3.4 million votes statewide, or about 78 percent of the votes cast for president. During the 2008 general election, 71 percent of the people who voted for president also voted in the Supreme Court race.
While voting in that race may have been sparked by the intense advertising campaigns that accompanied it, voting also was up in the lower profile Court of Appeals races. Those races drew an average of more than 3.3 million votes, or 75 percent of the presidential vote, compared with 66 percent four years ago. And there were three contested races this year, compared with five in 2008.
There were only seven contested Superior Court races statewide – and several of the districts that had contested races this year did not have contested races four years ago – so the data was too meager to accurately gauge voting changes.
For the District Court contests, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Wake counties all saw slight upticks in voter participation rates. The three judicial districts hosted 14 of the 38 contested District Court races and provide a snapshot of the statewide picture.
In both Guilford and Mecklenburg, about 66 percent of the residents who voted for president also filled out ballots in the District Court races, compared with 63 percent of voters in 2008. And in Wake County, 69 percent of voters cast ballots in the District Court races, compared with 61 percent in 2008.
Reacting to the votes in Mecklenburg, Charlotte lawyer and former District Court Judge Nancy B. Norelli, chair of the NCBA’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee, said, “It’s not huge, but given that this is the first year, I’m proud of that number. I feel like we moved the needle.”
Winners and losers
But while the NCBA’s publicity push might have spurred voting, it’s less clear that the judicial surveys affected the results.
Of the seven contested Superior Court races, five of the winners had better survey ratings than their opponents. Only one candidate who scored lower than an opponent came out on top. (Candidates in the seventh race were not included in the survey.)
The 38 contested District Court races were a different story. Twenty-one of the newly elected or re-elected judges had worse ratings than their opponents. One example was election winner/survey loser Lou Olivera in Cumberland County.
His opponent, Stephen C. Stokes, received an overall performance rating of 3.9 out of 5. Olivera was rated 2.9, which the evaluation designates “below average.” Judge hopefuls were ranked on a one-to-five scale in the categories of “integrity and fairness,” “legal ability,” “professionalism,” “communication” and “administrative skills.”
Olivera was skeptical of his ratings, which were based on the opinions of 64 lawyers, and said the survey had the potential to be more of a popularity contest than a useful tool for voters. He said Stokes, who was reviewed by 53 lawyers, was quick to trumpet the survey, as were many other candidates who ranked highly.
“He plastered it on newspapers. He plastered it on mailers. He handed it out to people voting in line,” said Olivera, who ended up beating Stokes with 51.6 percent of the vote. “Do I feel that the survey was relevant? No.”
Another District Court contender, Luther B. Culpepper IV, had a high overall rating in the survey, 4.57, but he ended up losing to Vershenia Ballance Moody, who had a lower rating of 3.85. Both were evaluated by 36 lawyers.
Culpepper believes he only received 42 percent of the vote because he was a white candidate facing an African American opponent in predominantly black judicial district 6B, which covers the counties of Bertie, Hertford and Northampton.
“During the early voting and continuing onto election day, my poll workers and I observed individuals being brought to the polls and given a pre-marked sample ballot with all the African American candidates checked. They were told to just copy the sample ballot onto their ballot,” he wrote in an email, adding that his survey results and his efforts to publicize them probably earned him more votes than he would have gotten otherwise.
“I think [the survey] is very important,” Culpepper said. “I hope this will be something the bar association continues to do because I think it works in most districts. Just a large number of folks in my district were more interested in color than experience.”
Moody said Culpepper’s assertion that he lost because he’s white is “completely unfounded and unreasonable.” She added that some citizen groups did have sample ballots with the preferred candidates selected, but none of them were all African American. In fact, she said at least one of the sample ballots had Culpepper circled as the candidate of choice.
“I think that experience was a major factor in this race,” Moody said. “I have about 17 years of experience as a lawyer, almost 12 years of experience as a prosecutor and four years of experience as a criminal defense and civil attorney.”
More surveys planned
With the election in its rearview mirror, the NCBA’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee will meet in coming weeks and begin fine-tuning the survey for the next election cycle, Bohm said.
Several judge candidates complained that they got bad ratings but had no idea why, and Bohm said the committee might consider adding a comment section to the surveys, though doing so while protecting the anonymity of respondents will be a challenge.
“I think it would be fair to say that it would be helpful to the candidates to have that feedback,” Bohm said, “if we can find a way to effectively work that in.”
The committee also is looking to include appellate court candidates in future surveys and create a private evaluation process for newly elected trial judges so they can undergo a job performance review before they’re subjected to the public survey when running for re-election, said Norelli, the committee’s chairwoman.
“Our goal is to get and keep better judges on the bench,” she said.
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @NCLWBantz or email [email protected].