A Wednesday night candidate forum highlighted the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt tensions between current Chief Justice Mark Martin and Judge Ola Lewis, a superior court judge in Brunswick County who is vying for Martin’s seat.
The forum, held at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte Center City, featured all eight candidates running for four seats on the Supreme Court, including incumbent associate justices Cheri Beasley, Robin Hudson and Robert Hunter; Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV who faces Hunter for Martin’s former seat; Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson, facing Hudson; and Mike Robinson, a Winston-Salem litigator opposing Beasley.
During times when Martin or Lewis had the floor, the opposing candidate often appeared incredulous. Lewis often smiled and shook her head. In referencing research done by Lawyers Weekly, she noted the number of decisions—or lack thereof—handed down by the Supreme Court and said it needs to start doing what it is duty-bound to do—write more and work as hard as the lower courts.
Martin responded by saying, “I’ve never worked harder at any level than I have at the Supreme Court.”
In a phone interview Thursday, Lewis said she was skeptical.
“I just believe that in corporate America when folks stick and stay but there’s no productivity, they get rid of the CEO, and it’s time for new leadership at the superior court and a fresh perspective,” she said.
Jay Conison, dean of the Charlotte School of Law, and Jenna Deery of WSOC-TV moderated the panel, which was presented by the Charlotte School of Law and the Charlotte lawyers’ chapter of The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.
Questions ranged from what personal experiences have helped shaped the candidates’ understandings and applications of the law to whether they believe elections or appointments are the best way to choose judges.
Martin said he has met wonderful people along the way who, working in unison, can tackle any judicial issue they’re presented with. Lewis spoke of her time as an assistant district attorney, hearing cases from misdemeanors to death penalty sentencing phases. She spoke of being a litigant in her libel lawsuit against a man who accused her on Facebook of violating judicial codes of conduct and of her brother, who is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for felony crimes.
“I understand when families come before the court wringing their hands with children who have been in and out of prison or trouble because of their addiction and criminal activity,” Lewis said. “It’s probably part of my passion to bring therapeutic courts to Brunswick County.”
For the most part, the candidates spent an hour and a half agreeing with one another on the issues presented, each adding his or her personal spin. Nearly the entire panel declined to comment much when asked what recent Supreme Court decision they most disagreed with.
“I’m not sure that’s fruitful,” Beasley said.
“I think the question is unfair,” Hunter said.
Ervin elaborated a little: “[By answering that question] we lay ourselves open for litigants to question our ability to be fair and impartial.”
The question regarding personal experiences elicited responses as varied as the candidates’ bios. Most candidates touted their years of experience and diverse professional backgrounds.
Hunter said he is the first lawyer in a blue-collar family who has been part of small firms and large, international ones.
“We are all a product of our environment and I will be fair to all who come before me,” he said.
Robinson, the lone candidate without judicial experience, said he believes his business background has a place on the state’s highest court.
“Businesses are important in North Carolina and they depend on certainty,” he said. “There’s not a lot of guidance from the Supreme Court, and I think the entire state can benefit from the placing of a greater emphasis [on business].”
Levinson said he has developed a passion for the court that he thinks matters. Hudson said her experience guides her to strive to “get it right every time.”
Conison asked the panelists their opinions regarding the appointment method versus elections for judicial officials and most everyone agreed: the system could be better.
“There is no perfect system—I think the way we do it now is a reasonable way to select the men and women who are going to serve the citizens of our state,” Robinson said. “Reasonable minds may differ about whether some kind of appointment process, retention process or a straight election like we have now is the best way to select our judges here.”
Lewis proclaimed she is “unbought and unbossed” and praised the election process.
Borrowing a phrase made popular by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, Martin said, “States always have to be the laboratories of democracy.”
Said Ervin, “Any system needs balance … I’ve never seen a nonpolitical appointment,” adding, “We make the best of the system we’ve got.”
Hunter agreed that the system can be improved, but suggested that the fixes offered by his fellow candidates would be like “putting lipstick on a pig.”
The question of whether the court system is appropriately funded was posed to only Chief Justice candidates Martin and Lewis.
Martin indicated he would like to convene a commission to take a deeper look at the issue. On Thursday, Martin elaborated on that point while speaking to the High Point Bar Association. According to the Associated Press, Martin pointed to the recent reversal of convictions in a Robeson County murder case as an illustration of the dangers of an underfunded criminal justice system.
Lewis said she is used to doing more with less.
“We can bring cutting-edge justice on a shoestring budget,” she said.