Judicial elections can be overlooked amid the hubbub of the presidential contests and state and local races, and it can be difficult for those who do take notice to make informed decisions.
One means for the public to become acquainted with those seeking a seat on the state’s Court of Appeals or Supreme Court may be experiencing its final go-round this year.
The 2016 Judicial Voting Guide, published by the N.C. Board of Elections, recently landed in mailboxes throughout the state.
The General Assembly required the guide be published and distributed prior to judicial elections beginning in 2002.
The publication includes basic background information for each candidate, candidate statements, general election information and an absentee ballot request form.
This year each pamphlet cost 6 cents to produce and distribute, totaling $245,000, according to Patrick Gannon, public information officer for the board of elections.
Gannon explained that the publication is funded through the N.C. Public Campaign Fund that he said, “used to be a licensing arrangement.”
Because attorney licensing fees directed to that fund were deemed unconstitutional, “there is no money going into that fund.”
When the money runs out, publication of the voting guide will likely cease.
Neither Gannon nor Joshua Lawson, general counsel for the board, knew how much money remains in the fund.
Candidates do not pay to have their statements included in the pamphlet and they are not edited or fact-checked by the agency. Some statements include links to websites or social media accounts.
Local judge provides comment
Judge William B. Southern III recently spoke about the importance of judicial elections.
“They are often forgotten at the bottom of the ballot but are vital for our democratic form of government to provide a true system of checks and balances,” he stated in an email.
Southern is running unopposed for his seat as District Court Judge in Judicial District 17-B, which includes Stokes and Surry counties.
In the only other local contest this election season, District Court Judge Angela Puckett is running unopposed for Superior Court Judge.
“It is critical for citizens to vote for the best judges possible,” Southern said, suggesting some criteria.
“I believe the best candidates are the ones who see their role as a candidate to educate the citizenry about their experience and qualifications. Likewise, the best judges are the ones who harness their experience to apply the law fairly to each case and person that comes before them. The best judges understand that access to justice is crucial for our courts. Every person is entitled to an impartial system that allows them an unfettered opportunity to have their case heard according to the law. Equality of opportunity, not outcome, is a hallmark of a fair justice system.”
The N.C. Bar Association developed a survey for the 2012 election cycle aimed at providing the public information about District and Superior Court candidates in each county.
Attorneys throughout the state are asked to score each candidate from one (poor) to five (excellent) on the following factors: integrity and impartiality, legal ability, professionalism, communication, administrative skills and overall performance.
The results are published on the association’s website and can be viewed at NCBar.org.
One glaring limitation of this survey is that the data is obtained through peer review.
Although they are running unopposed, ratings for Southern and Puckett were included in the first two phases of the report.
In phase I of the report, Southern received an average rating of 4.12 for integrity and impartiality; 3.89 for legal ability; 4.18 for professionalism; 4.19 for communication; 4.11 for administrative skills; and 4 for overall performance.
Puckett was scored in phase II of the report, receiving scores of 3.14 for integrity and impartiality; 3.61 for legal ability; 3.33 for professionalism; 3.54 for communication; 3.5 for administrative skills; and 3.38 for overall performance.
Justice system speakers bureau established
Southern remarked that closing the gap between the judiciary and the public is not just the responsibility of voters.
“I also have continued to advocate for our judges to do a better job at promoting the work we do and the types of cases that are most often seen in court,” he said. “While we can’t speak about particular cases or parties or give legal advice, we can provide more information about the third branch of our government. It’s a responsibility of all elected officials to answer to the public and their questions.”
As part of its “Celebrate North Carolina Courts” initiative, the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts recently established a speakers bureau as a free public service.
Members representing different aspects of the judicial community are available by request to speak for groups to inform communities about the court system.
Bureau members available to speak in Surry County include: Anderson Cromer, Superior Court Judge, Stokes County; Carolyn Dobbins, Superior Court Trial Court Coordinator, Surry County; Bill Southern, District Court Judge (17B); Regina Billings, Assistant Clerk of Superior Court, Wilkes County; Mark Oakes, Magistrate Judge, Gaston County; Jason Walters, N. C. Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, Forsyth County; Richard Doughton, Special Superior Court Judge, Allegheny County; Donna Terrell, Attorney, Yadkin County.
Speakers can be requested and more information can be found at Celebrate NCCourts.org/speakers-bureau.
Southern said, “I know the black robe may be intimidating but I encourage groups to invite judges to speak if they are interested in learning more.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.