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Court funding, judicial experience focus of forum

“Casey Viser: Last on the ballot, first in your heart.”Election buttons 2014 ad Text

That punch line and subsequent crowd laughter punctuated a forum — largely a light-hearted affair — at the Charlotte School of Law last week. Nine candidates for district and superior court judge seats attended the Oct. 15 event, hosted by Justice Initiatives and the Mecklenburg County Bar.

District Court Judge Viser and his opponent Alicia Brooks maintained a cordial tone, with Brooks offering a laugh line of her own, calling herself “the best-kept secret in Charlotte.”

A small crowd gathered for the forum. Photo by Heath Hamacher

A small crowd gathered for the forum. Photo by Heath Hamacher

“So I’m stepping out, no longer wanting to be a secret. I’ve told you what I stand for,” she said. “Alica Brooks: Don’t keep me a secret.”

Candidates for superior court judge Carla Archie; incumbent John Bowers, appointed by Gov. McCrory last month to replace retired Judge William Constangy; Assistant District Attorney David Kelly, and Eric Montgomery touted their experience as often as possible.

Alluding to the varied caseload of superior court, Archie—who has served as an ADA and is currently senior litigation counsel for Wells Fargo—said she feels she has a “deep and substantial amount of experience in both areas.”

“I have tried every kind of criminal case there is,” she said. “I have been handling civil litigation … for almost 10 years now.”

Bowers joked that he’d been serving as a judge for two days, but touted his appellate experience as a clerk and lawyer and said he believes he is the candidate most familiar with the way superior court is run.

Kelly said that in superior court an overwhelming number of cases are criminal.

David Kelly speaks to the forum. Photo by Heath Hamacher

David Kelly speaks to the forum. Photo by Heath Hamacher

“In civil court you have the luxury of taking things under advisement … but in criminal court you do not have that luxury. If you don’t have the knowledge … you will shut our system down,” he said.

Montgomery said his greatest selling point was his experience as the only candidate to open his own firm and deal with the same populations he would see as a superior court judge.

“My breadth of experience in dealing with everyday people coming before the courts gives me the kind of experience to make quick and sound decisions and I think that makes me the most qualified person,” he said.

The panelists answered questions regarding areas of the law they are less familiar with, challenging times they’ve encountered in a courtroom, what they would do differently than their opponents and their judicial heroes.

Incumbent Superior Court Judge Bob Bell, who has served on the superior court bench for 17 years, said he thinks the public should be educated better about what judges do. He said the courts are underfunded and pointed to a recent court reporter shortage.

“Last week we were not able to run courtrooms because we did not have court reporters because of budgetary restraints,” Bell said. “That’s the function of the state government and the state ought to be adequately funding the court system.”

Bowers agreed, calling funding issues a “crisis.”

The judicial budget used to be almost 3 percent of the total budget of the state of North Carolina and it’s now under 2 percent,” Bowers said. “The result is such that there aren’t even enough court reporters to hold court … the best and brightest people are leaving … we are going to kill ourselves if we don’t find a way to address this.”

Justin Moore, who filed to challenge incumbent Superior Court Judge Bob Bell, did not attend.

Carla Archie speaks to the audience.

Carla Archie speaks to the audience.

The conversation between Yolanda Trotman and incumbent District Court Judge Theo Nixon, who has held the seat since 2008, was a bit contentious.

When asked why they picked this particular seat to seek, Trotman said that with the exception of three judges she knew very well, she sat in the courtrooms of each judge whose spot was open.

“I sat in my opponent’s courtroom and I was troubled by what I saw,” she said. “I was troubled by how people were being treated, I was troubled by some of the decisions I saw from the bench and I was troubled by some of the things that … I think make our system less efficient.”

Nixon responded by saying, “I’m not really sure what Ms. Trotman’s talking about, but it doesn’t really matter.”

Nixon said he was proud of his accomplishments, including the creation of specialized courts that address specific needs of defendants, but admitted to being a “straight talker” and a strict disciplinarian who expects everyone to be on time, every time, and prepared.

“I will put people in jail if they’re late,” he said.

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