Rare confluence of events sets the stage for courtroom shake up

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.


An even-keel district

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.


Bucking tradition

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.


A history of District Court judges

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.

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