If you are like most folks this time of year, you have already seen more television ads, heard more on the radio, and had more robo-calls than you can stomach – and the primary election has only just come and gone. We still have the general election to follow. In all the hue and cry over the “big races,” it is easy to lose sight of the fact that a number of judicial branch offices are on the ballot. And, who cares about judges anyway? We would suggest that you should care more than you may think. Understanding why you should care comes first as too many people assume the courts do not impact their lives unless someone sues them or they want to sue someone.
Let’s start with the Clerk of Superior Court’s office. This critical office is up for grabs in contested elections in Wake, Guilford and Mecklenburg, as well as many other counties across the state. What does the Clerk of Superior Court do? This office oversees all filings, criminal and civil, handles estate administration, foreclosures, adoptions, competency hearings, and collects massive amounts of funds in the form of fees, fines, and other payments made through the court system. The Clerk also holds judicial powers but in a number of counties, the Clerk is not a lawyer.
The two trial court levels, District and Superior, have numerous judges running in contested races. The District Court judges hear criminal matters, family law matters including divorces, custody and equitable distribution, and civil matters up to $25,000.00. Superior Court judges hear criminal matters, including appeals from District Court and felonies, as well as civil disputes with amounts at issue in excess of $25,000.00; they also hear appeals of rulings made by administrative agencies and administrative law judges. Candidates for these seats need to be willing to make quick, accurate decisions; they need a thorough understanding of the rules of criminal and civil procedure; the best of these judges have practice experience in more than one practice area as they rotate between civil and criminal courts and face questions of law in every realm imaginable. A good judge exhibits a blend of experience, wisdom, curiosity, maturity, decisiveness and a willingness to learn. These are high pressure, rapid fire positions with high stakes in terms of the outcome.
The two appellate courts, the NC Court of Appeals and the NC Supreme Court, are deliberative courts, but also generally courts of last resort. The Supreme Court’s decisions are final with a few, very rare, instances where a case could go from there to the United States Supreme Court. In recent years, the NC Supreme Court has taken fewer and fewer cases unanimously decided by the Court of Appeals which makes the COA unanimous decisions final and increases the number of times that the Court of Appeals is the final arbiter of a dispute. These judges do not hear live testimony. They review decisions made at the trial court level and evaluate for errors in the process, the interpretation of the law, and in some cases in evaluation of the facts. These courts require analytical thinkers who are willing to put in the time and effort to research matters and draft thoughtful, thorough opinions. These opinions become the “common law” on which much of our legal system is built. These judges are bound to a large extent by what has been decided before and applying those opinions to current cases so that our society can depend upon consistency in the interpretation of the law. They interpret law and determine the constitutionality of laws.
Judicial races are non-partisan for a reason. A judge should be selected on the basis of his/her demeanor, experience, education, and willingness to set aside all things political and interpret the law based upon the intent of the legislature, the contents of the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions, and the body of the common law. Politics are an inevitable force in the world, but if injected into the judicial process, they risk damaging the reliability and predictability that are the core functions of the judiciary. Educate yourself before you vote.