Not a day goes by that Judge Monica Leslie doesn’t realize the gravity of her decisions.
Leslie is one of six District Court judges in the seven western counties. They decide how to split property and wealth when a couple gets divorced. They decide whether a restraining order is warranted in a domestic violence claim. They make heart-wrenching decisions in custody battles. And perhaps most difficult, decide whether a parent with a history of neglect is ready to get their children back.
“We deal with families in crisis,” Leslie said.
Gavin Brown, a Waynesville attorney, said that in some ways who serves as judge is more important than the president.
“A District Court judge affects the citizens directly in my community and on a daily basis. They take care of domestic disputes, they take care of foreclosures, they take care of car wrecks and traffic violations,” Brown said. “They are so critical in everyday life — in what they say and do and how they do it.”
There’s even more at stake in this year’s judge race than normal, however. Three long-time judges have retired in the past two years — creating a void of experience. Turnover is rare on the bench, let alone this level of turnover all at one time.
“Once you win a position as a judge, barring a health problem or some personal issue, you don’t lose that job,” said Brown.
Out of six District Court judges for the region, half are in flux. The watershed election year attracted a staggering 10 judge candidates in the May primary. The list has now been narrowed to six going into the November race. Two candidates are vying for each seat, with each still considered a toss-up just a month away from Election Day.
Two of the three seats will fill vacancies left by Judges Danny Davis and Steve Bryant — who retired this summer with a combined 50 years of experience on the bench.
“Whoever replaces them will have big shoes to fill and will need to be able to handle the load almost immediately,” said Judge Richie Holt, now the senior District Court judge with 17 years on the bench. “My number one job in the next year is to get everybody going on the right direction and handling the cases adequately and appropriately.”
That’s not to say that different styles of running a courtroom can’t be equally effective, he said.
“The folks can use their own styles and their own personality, but it will take them a while to figure out what type of things to do or say to keep it moving,” Holt said.
The legal community will certainly tread cautiously until they get used to the new lay of the land — and the tendencies that the new judges manifest.
“From a lawyer’s point of view, lawyers like consistency. We like to be able to predict under certain sets of facts what the likely outcome might be so we can advise our clients accordingly,” said Don Patten, a Haywood County attorney.
That’s going to be tough when 50 percent of the judiciary will essentially be new at the job.
“I would guess the general public, I don’t think they have any idea the gravity of our situation to a certain extent,” said David Moore, a Sylva attorney.
That said, experience isn’t everything.
“Temperament, knowledge, skill, intelligence — those are all factors that are fairly critical,” Moore added.
Not to mention time management. There’s hundreds of cases on the line across the seven-county district every month.
“You sure want someone who knows what they are doing and can handle it fairly, judiciously and expediently,” said Patten.
The election for District Court judges is non-partisan. In other words, candidates on the ballot won’t be labeled as Democrats or Republicans. Partisan views aren’t as relevant as personality traits when it comes to electing judges.
To help voters familiarize themselves with the candidates, Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News are putting on two forums next week.
“This particular judicial race is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for this region,” said Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod. “Three District Court judge seats being decided in one election is very unusual, and so we hope voters will take the opportunity to familiarize themselves with who is running and their backgrounds.”
On the bright side, after this hump the bench will most likely enjoy another 20 to 30 years of long-term stability, Brown pointed out.
Who’s running for district court judge
• Danya Vanhook, a sitting judge based in Haywood County who’s been on the job a little over a year
• Donna Forga, Waynesville attorney in solo practice
• Kris Earwood, Sylva attorney with solo practice (formerly of firm Lay and Earwood)
• David Sutton, Waynesville attorney with Kirkpatrick law firm
• Steve Ellis, Waynesville attorney in solo practice (formerly with the firm Brown, Ward and Haynes)
• Roy Wijewickrama, Waynesville attorney serving as prosecutor in Cherokee