Six attorneys vying for a vacant district court judge seat in the region will try to win the endorsement of the legal community this week, which could help their chances of landing the coveted spot on the bench.
A monumental judge’s election to fill three 30th District Court seats in Western North Carolina has ended after a clean, tightly-contested election.
When the dust settled three new judges were seated — Donna Forga, Kristina Earwood and Roy Wijewickrama.
Forga’s win could have been the most suprising as she unseated Judge Danya Ledford Vanhook, who was appointed a little more than a year ago to replace the retiring Marlene Hyatt. At forums during the campaign Forga spoke of the lessons learned as a single mom working her way through college and law school and the influence of the judge’s she has worked with.
“I’m so looking forward to serving the people of this district,” Forga said after her win. “And I also want to say how impressed I was with the quality of the judicial candidates. It makes me proud to be one of them.”
“Honestly, this is my dream, what I’ve been working for. Just incredible,” said Forga.
With voter turnout very high, the closest race of the three was between David Sutton and Kristina Earwood. Earwood, a Sylva attorney, managed to narrowly beat out Sutton by less than 2,000 votes.
At a forum in October, Earwood talked about how important it was to treat everyone equally in the courtroom.
“It’s very important to treat those people with respect. It’s really important that when someone steps through the door of a courtroom, there is no color, there’s no race, there’s no economic line — justice is blind. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings. I do think it’s very important because of the impact we have on people’s lives,” Earwood said.
In the third race, Waynesville attorney Roy Wijewickrama bested fellow Waynesville attorney Steve Ellis.
In forums throughout the judge’s race, all the candidates spoke of how difficult it would be to replace the demeanor and courtroom presence of Hyatt and retiring judges Danny Davis and Steve Bryant. Davis and Bryant had a combined 50 years experience on the bench.
District Court judge races are non-partisan, which means the candidates are not affiliated with any political party.
Donna Forga 30,282
Danya Ledford Wanhook 22,364
Kristina Earwood 27,032
David Sutton 25,159
Roy Wijewickrama 27,904
Stephen G. Ellis 23,864
Candidates for District Court judge will espouse their vision for the bench at election forums held next week in Haywood and Jackson County.
“Judges make decisions every day that directly influence people’s lives, yet many voters don’t know where judicial candidates stand on the most important issues of the day,” said Chris Cooper, WCU associate professor of political science and public affairs, and director of the Public Policy Institute. “We want to help voters learn what they need to know about the people who want to represent them in the judiciary.”
Candidates in other local races will be given two-minutes at the mic prior to the judge hopefuls taking the stage. The forums will be sponsored by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News. The two forums are:
• 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Western Carolina University Multipurpose Room of A.K. Hinds University Center.
• 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, at Haywood Community College auditorium.
A reception will be held from 6:30 to 7 p.m. where voters can talk informally with the candidates for judge and other local offices. The formal portion of the forum will begin at 7 p.m. Local candidates who attend — county commissioner, school board, sheriff, and state representative or senate candidates — will get two minutes each to introduce themselves and discuss their platforms.
Todd Collins, WCU assistant professor of political science and public affairs, will serve as moderator of the forum with the judicial candidates. Questions will be developed prior to the forum, but audience participation will be allowed as time permits.
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.
• 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
With more unaffiliated candidates running for office this year, political party leaders are torn over whether to open their doors to those who won’t declare party affiliation as either Democrat or Republican.
In Jackson County, three unaffiliated candidates will be on the ballot this fall: one for sheriff, one for county commissioner chairman and one for District Court judge. The Jackson County Democratic Party has barred them from attending candidate meet-and-greets hosted by the party.
“It is not right for the Democratic Party to support a Republican or unaffiliated candidate when there is a Democratic candidate on the ballot,” said Kirk Stephens, chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “The role of the party organization is to support and elect Democratic candidates, so why would we stray from that?”
Kris Earwood, a candidate running for District Court judge, said she was disappointed to be barred from the meet-and-greet. Judge races are nonpartisan — meaning that even though candidates might subscribe to one party or the other when it comes to their voter registration, party affiliation isn’t listed on the ballot as it is with most races.
Stephens said some of the other candidates running for judge have been active in the party, and that it would be unfair to give those with no affiliation or involvement in the party equal access to the Democratic voter base.
Stephens said opening the doors to other candidates would actually violate the party’s national bylaws, which stipulate that party leaders can be removed for supporting a candidate of another political party.
But that hasn’t stopped party leaders in other counties. Earwood has attended both Democratic and Republican party events in other places.
“Most of them have looked at independents not as an opposing party,” Earwood said. “I have been allowed to come to things for the simple reason that both parties are realizing they are going to have to deal with the independents.”
Earwood’s opponent for the seat, David Sutton, is a registered Democrat but he has been allowed to attend meet-and-greets hosted by Republican Party in Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties — since the race is technically nonpartisan. He was barred from attending the annual convention of the Republican Party in Swain and Macon, however.
As a Democrat, Sutton has actively tapped the organized party structure to connect with voters.
“It is important to the extent that it makes networking easier,” Sutton said. “It has definitely been helpful.”
Earwood said that she was warned by politicos that her lack of party affiliation would hurt her in the race, especially when it came to campaigning.
“I was told that an independent could not win in Western North Carolina,” Earwood said. “Across the board, people told me I needed to change my party affiliation, and I felt like that was disingenuous.”
Earwood said she doesn’t think the average voter cares. In fact, the number of voters registered as unaffiliated is growing by leaps and bounds, so it may even be an asset.
“It has upset me at times when I’ve been treated ungraciously because of my independent status. But for a judicial race it should be based on the person and their career rather than what their party affiliation is,” Earwood said.
Earwood said party affiliation doesn’t factor into the job of District Court judge — witnessed by the state designating judge races as nonpartisan.
“We don’t do any policy,” Earwood said.
But Stephens said it does matter.
“Being a Democrat is not a check box on paper. It is a lifestyle. It is a philosophical way of approaching and viewing your surroundings and your community,” Stephens said. “It is important for us as a party that we have judges that represent our values.”
While party affiliation likely doesn’t affect a judge’s outlook on a speeding ticket, District Court judges also decide critical family issues such as child custody and parental rights where philosophy matters, he said.
Sutton agrees with Earwood that your party isn’t important as a District Court judge. But that doesn’t mean voters don’t care.
“People definitely want to know,” Sutton said.
Without a party label, voters are left guessing, Stephens said.
“It doesn’t make it impossible to know what that person believes, but it does make it more difficult,” Stephens said. “Democrats like to say we have a big tent and we try to be inclusive. There are a lot of different kinds of people involved in the Democrat Party but the thing we have in common is we are all Democrats. There has to be a boundary somewhere.”
District Court judge candidates who made it past the primary hope the race will become more digestible to voters now that the field has been narrowed down.
Three judge seats are up for election in what is considered a watershed year for the bench. Two seats are being vacated by long-time judges, leaving the races wide open. The third seat has been occupied for less than a year, so the sitting judge doesn’t have an entrenched toehold or incumbent’s advantage, making that seat competitive as well.
But the choices were overwhelming: 10 candidates running for three seats. All the names on the ballot were likely brand-new to those outside the legal arena.
Roy Wijewickrama and Steve Ellis were the top vote-getters in one primary while David Sutton and Kris Earwood got the most votes in the other primary. Incumbent Danya Vanhook will face Donna Forga in the third race.
Based on the numbers, many who passed through the polling booths didn’t vote in the judge race.
“From talking to voters, I hear many of them leave the ballots blank when it comes to judicial races,” said Roy Wijewickrama, one of the winning judge candidates.
“It is the last race people think about and last thing people decide about before they vote,” said Steve Ellis, one of the candidates advancing past the primary.
But it wasn’t from a lack of trying on the candidates’ part.
“We all worked hard for the past two and a half months,” Wijewickrama said.
Kris Earwood, another candidate who will advance, said it would be easier for the candidates to convey their message to voters now that the field has narrowed.
“There were a lot of candidates in this race from a lot of backgrounds and a lot of counties. It will be less stressful to focus on one opponent as opposed to four,” Earwood said.
Earwood said all the candidates worked hard during the primary, and they all got to know each other quite well from constantly running into each other at the same functions and forums, sometimes several times a week. Earwood said the race stayed cordial and pleasant.
“Yesterday everyone said good luck and good race and really meant it. It was a really good experience,” Earwood said.
David Sutton said he was humbled by the support.
“With so many variables at play with five different candidates, I wasn’t sure I would do this well,” Sutton said.
The candidates agree they will now have to redouble efforts through to reach the masses between now and November.
“The people we talked to were very receptive to us, but you can only reach directly a small number of people,” Ellis said. “It will be about letting people know the role of the District Court and what the judges do and then distinguishing ourselves.”
Ellis said the judge’s spent so much time at the same functions and forums, their spouses got to know each other quite well.
Seat one – top two advance
David Sutton: 6,969
Kristina Earwood: 6,268
Greg Boyer: 3,617
Justin Greene: 3,386
J. Caleb Rogers: 3,222
Seat two – top two advance
Roy Wijewickrama: 8,587
Stephen Ellis: 7,428
Russell McLean: 7,215
*The fall election wil determine just one winner for each seat. A third judge’s seat is also up for election this year, but there were only two candidates running, Donna Forga and Danya Vanhook, both of whom will advance past the primary to square off in November.
Three District Court judge seats are up for election in the seven western counties. The race for judge isn’t partisan, so candidates aren’t distinguished as Republican or Democrat on the ballot.
Candidates have to designate which of the three seats they are running for. The top two candidates for each seat will advance to the November election.
There are only two candidates running for this seat. Both will automatically advance past the primary. In-depth profiles and coverage of these candidates will appear in the run-up to the fall election.
Danya Vanhook, a sitting judge based in Haywood County
Vanhook currently serves as a judge. She was appointed to the seat just last year by Gov. Beverly Perdue to fill a vacancy.
Donna Forga, Waynesville attorney in solo practice
Forga has practiced all manner of law, mostly criminal and family law, including child custody, divorces and the like. She has also worked with Legal Aid, which provides free representation to victims of domestic violence.
Greg Boyer, 60, attorney in Franklin with Jones, Key, Melvin, & Patton
Experience: Boyer hails from Florida originally. He moved to Franklin part-time in 1999. He became a full-time resident and began practicing here five years ago. Boyer has done all types of law: criminal, family “pretty much the things we see in District Court.”
Why run: “I’ve always enjoyed practicing law. I really enjoy it. I love it.”
Boyer is particularly fond of District Court.
“I have always enjoyed that type of practice which is heavy on people and spending a lot of time with different folks ... This past year I started thinking about giving a little bit back.”
Philosophy: “The members of the practicing bar here are good and honest and try very hard to do a good job. If a lawyer said something to me, I could normally trust that. In big cities, there is not that flavor. I appreciate the caliber of the people I get to work with here ... The key thing I have seen is a caring about people in the court system. They aren’t just a number or a cog in the wheel. That is what I really think District Court is about.”
Kris Earwood, 32, Sylva attorney with firm Lay and Earwood
Experience: Earwood went to law school at Regent, Va. She interned with the district attorney’s office for a few months while in school.
Upon graduating, she joined the firm of Frank Lay, where she is now a partner. She focused on criminal defense for three years, then spent two years doing family law with the Department of Social Services. She briefly served as a prosecutor in tribal court in Cherokee.
Lay said in her seven years, she has had vast “in the courtroom” experience.
“I spend more time in District Court than in my office,” she said.
Why run: District courtrooms are regularly packed to the gills with all walks of life, with all manner of violations and every type of dispute imaginable.
“Either you love District Court or you don’t. I really love District Court. There are a lot of attorneys who don’t ... I love the case law. I love the precision of it. I love the statutes. I hope the ultimate goal of any judge is to seek justice.”
Philosophy: “District Court is the place where a judge can really have an impact on someone’s life, whether it is a criminal defendant or a DSS case ... The average voter isn’t well-versed in what goes on in District Court, but it’s where you go if you get a speeding ticket or are getting a divorce. It is the meat and potatoes of our court system.”
What else: Earwood wants to uphold the tradition of even-temperament and sound decisions the 30th judicial bench is known for.
“Everybody we have had up there had common sense life experience and legal experience.”
Justin Greene, 30, Bryson City attorney with Moody and Brigham law firm
Experience: Greene went to law school at N.C. Central. He did an internship with Moody and Brigham while still in school and came back to his hometown to work at the firm after graduation in 2006. Greene said he has handled the full gamut of case work.
“We are a small firm in a small town so you do what needs doing.”
He has also been an attorney advocate for the guardian ad litem program.
Why run: “I have always had an eye for the bench since I was a little kid.” He remembers a field trip to the local courthouse in second grade. All the students took turns sitting behind the judge’s bench. Ever since, he’s wanted to be a judge.
Philosophy: “I think I can help people. I think I can understand the way people are and what some of the problems are that people in this area have ... I can see both sides of issues. When you can relate to the people you are serving that is a huge help.”
Greene said his youth, or the age of any candidate, isn’t an issue.
“It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” But he admits there are big shoes to fill.
“I have always had great pride about practicing where I practice and being an attorney in WNC. It is the best bench in the state and always has been.”
What else: Unlike the heavy concentration of candidates from Haywood County, Greene hopes “one thing that might set me apart is I am from the western part of the district.”
David Sutton, 34, Waynesville attorney with Kirkpatrick law firm
Experience: Sutton went to law school at N.C. Central. He has practiced law for five years at the firm of James “Kirk” Kirkpatrick.
Sutton has practiced in most areas that come up in District Court, but has done less on criminal and more on the civil side and domestic arena, including family law, divorce, child custody, child support, and the like. He also has done many property disputes, a big item in District Court.
Why run: Sutton was an elementary teacher for two years before he decided to go back to law school. Once in law school, he decided fairly quickly he wanted to be a judge one day.
“One day arrived,” he said.
“The majority of the cases in District Court affect families and children, be it criminal or domestic cases. I think it is a good opportunity to provide a safe, neutral environment for families to resolve their differences.”
Philosophy: “I feel like I can be fair and objective in applying the law. Those who know me in the legal community know I won’t get out of control on the bench and would maintain an even keel, that I am fair I would listen to all sides before making a determination. Those are promises I will make.”
When it is necessary I will not hesitate to send somebody to jail if it ensures the safety of the public.”
What else: Sutton’s father died when he was a baby, and his mother remarried. He grew up in a blended family with half-brothers and sisters and step-brothers and sisters, allowing him to related to the mixed family dynamics of those landing in District Court for domestic issues.
Sutton is active in the Haywood County Democratic Party. While the race is non-partisan, Sutton has used the normal routes within party structures to garner support for his candidacy.
Caleb Rogers, 30, Waynesville attorney in solo practice
Experience: Rogers went to Wake Forest for law school. Upon graduating in 2005, he practiced at the firm Brown and Patten for four years before starting his own practice last year with his wife, who is also an attorney.
Rogers says he has done all the types of cases that would come before the district court bench: criminal and civil, including wills, estates, elderly guardianships, property disputes, and landlord-tenant fights. He has done family law, though not a whole lot. He estimates that he has done hundreds of real estate closings.
Why run: “Being a judge is being a servant. It is one of the highest forms of public service...I can do the job. I have the intellect, the knowledge of the law and strength of character necessary to serve on the bench.”
Philosophy: “A judge must be able to listen to and comprehend the breadth of every case before him and listen to all the facts and treat each case as important and then apply the law in a way that is fair to both sides. That promotes the equality of our system and protects the freedoms we all enjoy.”
Rogers advocates “severity where needed and second chances where appropriate.”
What else: He was valedictorian of his class at Pisgah High School. He is president of the Haywood County Bar Association.
Steve Ellis, 60, Waynesville attorney in the firm Brown, Ward and Haynes
Experience: Ellis went to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He worked for three years as a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office. He spent several years as an attorney for the Department of Social Services doing all manner of family law, including child custody, child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, child support, etc.
Why run: “This is as close to the people’s court as we have.”
Whether it is a speeding ticket or divorced couple trying to split their assets, “it is the court that probably affects the lives of more citizens” more than any other realm.
Ellis also wants to help fill a void being left by long-time judges.
“It was clear there would be an enormous change in the court system. I saw a need for an experienced person on the bench ... I have always been drawn to public service. This is a chance to step forward and do that.”
Philosophy: “Be courteous to everybody, starting with the people who come before you as the parties in the case and their attorneys, but also including the clerks, bailiffs, and witnesses.”
Ellis said a judge should not berate those who come before the bench or look down on others in the courtroom.
“If the judge acts courteously toward everybody, it creates an atmosphere for the courtroom.”
What else: Ellis was the top nominee for a vacant judge seat that opened up last year. When there is a vacancy on the bench, all the local attorneys come together and vote for three nominees, whose names are sent on to the governor to make the final selection. Ellis overwhelmingly received the support of attorneys in the seven western counties comprising the judicial district. He got 54 votes, while the attorney who came in second trailed with 25. However, the governor opted for the second runner-up.
“It was puzzling to a lot of people,” Ellis admitted.
Rusty McLean, 63, Waynesville attorney with solo practice
Experience: McLean went to law school at N.C. Central University. He has had law partners over the years, but mostly has operated a solo practice. McLean has 34 years experience in the civil and criminal arena. He says he has tried more than 2,000 criminal and civil jury trials and twice that number of non-jury trials.
“That is a pretty substantial difference from some of the candidates,” McLean said.
Why run: He decided to join the race again this year partly out of concern over the high turnover of experienced judges the bench has seen in the past few years, and with this election in particular. McLean said he is concerned about the level of acumen some of the younger candidates have.
“Judges don’t need to have on the job training.”
McLean said civil experience is just as important as criminal.
“Most people don’t end up in criminal court but they do have business disputes and collection disputes and property disputes, and those issues are important to people all over Western North Carolina.”
Philosophy: “A judge is not an advocate for either side. A judge has the duty and responsibility to listen to both sides and render a decision solely based on the evidence and apply the law correctly.”
What else: McLean ran for judge four years ago but lost in the primary.
McLean said he has taken more than 500 cases to appeal, the grounds for which are perceived mistakes by the judge. McLean said he became so tuned in to detecting potential judicial mistakes when trying cases that he would be less likely to make them himself if he was on the bench.
McLean has taken two cases all the way to the Supreme Court.
Roy Wijewickrama, 34, Waynesville attorney serving as prosecutor in Cherokee
Experience: Wijewickrama went to law school at Cleveland State in Ohio. He was a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office in the seven western counties for seven years. He went into private practice for a year to spend more time at home following the birth of his first child. And for the past two years, he has served as the prosecutor in tribal court run by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
While his expertise is clearly on the criminal side as a prosecutor, his year in private practice gave him experience in family law and civil cases.
“By no means do I consider that to be a lifetime worth of experience handling family law cases, but nevertheless, I am familiar with them and the law surrounding family law.”
Even as a prosecutor, he was involved in family law if allegations of child abuse or domestic violence were a part of the case.
Why run: “Most importantly I feel I will be serving my community, the community I was raised in. But also I feel like given my experience and given the fact that as a prosecutor especially I’ve had to make very difficult decisions, I feel I am well-suited to serve on the bench.”
Those decisions include when to offer a plea bargain, what evidence is admissible, whether charges are likely to stick, and how to deal with cases where children are serving as witnesses.
Philosophy: Wijewickrama said there are two primary qualifications for judge.
“Experience, and by that I mean time spent in court and the number of trials they have taken part in. And also temperament. That is very important.” Judges need to be tough and firm, but they also need to treat people with respect.
What else: Ellis does not see age as a strike against a candidate for judge. The long-time judges stepping down were young themselves when they were seated on the bench.
“We’ve had several judges over the past 25 years that have been appointed in the late 20s and early 30s, and I think they have been outstanding judges and I think the legal community would agree we have been very lucky to have them serving on the bench.”
While a hotly contested judge’s race is dominating the water cooler gossip in lawyers’ offices, the average voter likely has their work cut out for them.
The choices are overwhelming: 10 candidates running for three seats. All the names on the ballot are likely brand new to those outside the legal arena, leaving voters little to go by other than brief synopses of the candidates in the newspaper at best — and at worst the color scheme of their yard signs or a game of eenie-meenie-minie-moe inside the polling booth.
“Certainly the challenge will be to separate yourself from the other candidates,” said Caleb Rogers, an attorney from Waynesville and one of the candidates.
It’s an unprecedented level of competition for a judge’s race. But then again, it is an unprecedented state of affairs.
Once elected, judges usually park themselves in the seat and become unmovable by competition despite being up for election every four years. The only in-road to the bench comes when a judge steps down, which is what makes 2010 a watershed year.
Two of three seats up for election are being vacated by retiring judges. The third seat has been occupied for less than a year by an appointed judge, so the incumbent doesn’t have an entrenched toehold yet.
A competitive race for judge is rare occurrence, let alone three seats up for election the same year in one judicial district. Candidates realized it was a now or never moment. The outcome of the race will also bring major changes to the bench. Of six District Court judges serving in the seven western counties, three will be new to the bench within the past year and two more will be new since 2004 — leaving just one judge who has served longer than a decade.
Attorney Kris Earwood, one of the candidates, is humbled to think about the level of experience stepping down from the bench with this election: a combined 48 years between Judge Danny Davis and Steve Bryant.
“I think it is monumental,” Earwood said.
There’s another factor that could have spurred a larger-than-normal contest this year: money. The starting salary for a judge is $109,000, but can climb much higher for judges with a long tenure thanks to cost of living raises plus a bump in pay for every five years on the bench.
While the best-paid lawyers make far more than judges ever would, the economy has taken a toll on the practices of many lawyers who depended on real estate work, making the steady six-figure salary look all the more attractive.
It’s a watershed year for the legal community in Western North Carolina as attorneys gear up for a hotly contested election for three open judge seats.
There’s at least nine and possibly 10 candidates running for the three seats. Two of three seats are being vacated by retiring judges. The third has been occupied for less than a year, so the sitting judge doesn’t have an entrenched toehold on the seat yet.
“There is a bit of leveling of the playing field that is attractive,” said Judge Steve Bryant, who is among those retiring.
A competitive race for judge is rare occurrence, let alone for three seats the same year. Candidates realized it was a “now or never” moment.
“This is a confluence of events that might not come back at another point in my career,” said Justin Greene, a young Bryson City lawyer running for judge.
Sitting judges tend to step down in the middle of their term. The Governor appoints a new judge, who has a de facto leg-up as the incumbent by the time a real election rolls around for the seat.
Challengers to sitting judges have a slim chance — so slim that elections usually go uncontested. Judge Bryant never faced an opponent in 24 years, and Judge John Snow was challenged just once in 28 years. As a result, judges typically park themselves in a seat for a quarter century, making 2010 all the more unusual.
“This is something that I will not see again in my legal lifetime,” said Donna Forga, a Waynesville attorney joining the race.
Two seats are wide open due to the pending retirement of long-time judges Danny Davis and Steve Bryant. The third seat up for election isn’t quite so cut and dry.
The seat is currently held by Judge Danya Vanhook, who was appointed last May by the Governor to fill a vacancy. Her short tenure on the bench — along with the fact that she hasn’t won an election — isn’t enough to give her a true incumbent’s edge, and the race promises to be competitive.
The result: three judge’s seats are in flux.
“I don’t think that has ever truly happened where we had three open seat elections at the same time,” said Caleb Rogers, a Waynesville attorney running for one of the seats.
The legal community has been spoiled by years of relative stability, with only the occasional turnover at digestible intervals. But now, in a six-year span, the district will usher in five new District Court judges. (see A history of District Court judges).
“The biggest concern that anyone would have is how will it affect the judicial temperament and the judicial abilities?” said Bob Clark, a Waynesville attorney. “How does one as an attorney best represent his or her clients in front a judge they are not familiar with?”
The election is marked by a plethora of young candidates with only a few years of law experience under their belts.
The majority of candidates are in their early 30s. Others went back to law school later in life. Either way, the majority of the candidates have just a few years of legal experience. It’s making some attorneys a tad nervous.
Steve Ellis, a Waynesville attorney running for judge, is the only candidate who’s been practicing law in the state longer than a decade.
“We had a period of extreme stability for a long time,” said Ellis, 60. “It was clear there would be an enormous change in the court system. I saw a need for an experienced person on the bench.”
Of course, those long-time judges now retiring were young when they took the bench. Bryant was 34, and Davis was only 31. Judge John Snow, an esteemed judge who retired in 2004 after 28 years on the bench, was just 31 when he was appointed.
“We’ve had several judges over the past 25 years that have been appointed in their late 20s and early 30s, and I think they have been outstanding judges, and I think the legal community would agree we have been very lucky to have them serving on the bench,” said Roy Wijewickrama, a candidate for judge with nine years of legal experience, which actually places him at the front of the pack.
There’s an important difference in the current concatenation of events. Over the past three decades, a new District Court judge joined the bench every five years or so. Now, there will be five new judges in nearly as many years.
“There is a wealth of experience that is going to go away,” Snow said. “I am sure these young folks getting in there are going to do fine, but I can see how people will be a little nervous with the things they are used to going away.”
The two judges retiring this year have 49 years of experience between them.
“I think it is monumental just because those years are leaving the bench,” said Earwood, who is running for Bryant’s former seat. “There is no way that anyone could fill his shoes.”
Come next year, all six judges combined will have less than 30 years experience — the majority falling solely to Judge Richie Holt, soon to be the senior District Court judge. He’s known for his fair decisions, thoughtful hearings and approachability. Holt has 15 years of experience, a respectable number. But tenure declines rapidly from there. Second in seniority is Judge Monica Leslie with just six years on the bench.
New judges often lean on and draw from the experience of other sitting judges, but the bench could lack a critical mass of experience to make that possible. Clark said a new judge with less experience must be willing to accept advice from the more experienced attorneys trying cases — without being defensive.
“You have to be the type of individual that realizes ‘I am a brand new judge and I need to get to work.’ If you are willing to do that, you can overcome a lack of experience and boost your knowledge quickly, but you will have to be willing to accept help and seek others advice when you have a thorny question,” Clark said.
Bryant and Davis are breaking ranks from tradition by retiring the same year their seats are up for election. Usually, judges step down in the middle of their term, paving the way for a handpicked predecessor by the local legal community. While the governor ultimately makes the appointment, local attorneys vote on the slate of nominees and forward their pick to Raleigh.
It’s a far easier route to the bench. And it allows those in the legal community a high degree of influence, rather than the wild card of voting booths.
Despite the milestone year for the bench in the region — and the requisite media attention the race will garner as a result — voters have their work cut out.
Snow said only voters who care enough to ask around will learn enough about the candidates. Others will walk into the polls clueless.
Snow will be only slightly better off than the average voters this year.
“The problem I have is some of these folks who are running, I really don’t know them,” said Snow, who retired as a judge in 2004 to run for the state legislature.
A changing of the guard in the greater legal community hit home when Snow recently attended the Bar Association’s annual Christmas Party for the region.
“When I got there, I was kind of astounded at how few people I really knew,” Snow said.
Candidates share the problem of how to reach voters with their message.
“Certainly the challenge will be to separate yourself from the other candidates,” Rogers said.
But that’s easier said than done in a seven-county district where voters likely haven’t heard any of the names before. It’s also non-partisan, so voters don’t have the benefit of Democrat or Republican labels to guide them.
“The voters should become invested in it even though it is not party politics, because the decisions of the District Court judges effect citizens’ day-to-day lives,” said Judge Danya Vanhook. “We are deciding who is out driving on the roads. We are deciding where to put a child when two parents can’t agree in a divorce.”
Thousands of people filter through District Court in a year.
“It is the meat and potatoes of our court system,” Attorney Kris Earwood said of District Court.
The 30th Judicial District will witness 85 percent turnover in a six-year period with the passing of this year’s election. Of six District Court judges, five will be new to the bench since 2004.
• 2004: Judge John Snow retired after 28 years. Judge Monica Leslie is appointed to the vacancy, won a subsequent election, and still holds the seat.
• 2006: The region scores an additional District Court judge seat, bringing the total number from five to six. It is filled by Judge Richard Walker.
• 2009: Judge Brad Letts leaves the District Court bench to fill the seat of Superior Court Judge Marlene Hyatt, who retired. Judge Danya Vanhook is appointed to the vacancy.
• 2010: Judge Danny Davis and Judge Steve Bryant announce their retirement the same year their seats are up for election, triggering a free-for-all.
• 2011: With the election over, Judge Richie Holt will become the longest serving judge with 16 years on the bench. The other five judges will have less than that combined.
The starting salary for a judge is $109,000, but can climb much higher for judges with a long tenure thanks to cost of living raises plus a bump in pay for every five years spent on the bench.
Judge Steve Bryant now makes $132,000 a year.
“There are certainly lawyers making more than that and certainly lawyers making less than that,” Bryant said.
These days, however, with the recession taking its toll on the legal profession, there are far more lawyers below that figure than there used to be. Candidates have to plunk down $1,094 to run — 1 percent of the salary.
The job isn’t a cakewalk. While attorneys who labor 10 hours a day envy the judge that strolls up to the bench at 9:30 a.m. to start court, breaks for lunch between 12:30 and 2, then knocks off at 5, it’s not what it appears.
“I think people have the perception that everything you do takes place on the bench,” Bryant said.
But Bryant regularly takes work home to research case files and legal precedent, working nights and weekends.
And that doesn’t count the driving time. In a judicial district that spans seven counties — a more than two-hour drive from tip to tip — judges travel from courthouse to courthouse wherever they are needed.
“You can’t just decide to take a day off because there are 400 people waiting on you,” Judge Danny Davis said.
The district was so large and unwieldy — and had grown so much in case volume — that an additional judge’s seat was added four years ago, bringing the total to six seats.