Durham voters elected a slate of progressive judges on Tuesday, ousting two incumbents by significant margins.
There were three contested bench seats on the ballot: Two in District Court and one in Superior Court.
For District Court, Judge Fred Battaglia lost his re-election bid to Dave Hall, a civil rights attorney well-known in Durham for his work around policing reform and expungements. Hall took an early lead, ultimately winning 62 percent of votes to Battaglia’s 38 percent.
Longtime judge Jim Hill—a Republican whose fate was possibly doomed by the General Assembly’s decision to make judicial races partisan affairs—lost to assistant district attorney Clayton Jones, who won 76 percent of votes.
For the Superior Court seat, assistant district attorney Josephine Kerr Davis defeated senior assistant public defender Dawn Baxton with 65 percent of the vote. That seat was vacated by Judge Elaine O’Neal.
All of the non-incumbents campaigned on making the courts more equitable and less damaging to the people who come in contact with them—a departure from typical judicial campaign messaging about being fair, tough on crime, and impartial. They touted their experience and ability to weigh cases without prejudice but also talked about the inherent unfairness of money bail, the burden of court fines and fees, and the need to make more use of alternatives to incarceration.
With 55 percent voter turnout in Durham, voters signaled once again, as they did in electing a new sheriff and district attorney in May, that they want to see a change in Durham’s criminal justice system. With their victories, Hall, Davis, and Jones join a list of elected officials pledging to reform the system, and their election also makes that more doable: Judges set bail, determine sentences, decide when to waive court fines and fees, and preside over court diversion programs.
Hall is best known for his work with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where he worked with community members and the FADE Coalition to change Durham Police Department traffic stop policies.
The community has taken a role in how it is policed through that work, how the jail should operate via the election of a new sheriff, how people are prosecuted through the election of a new district attorney, and, with the results of Tuesday’s judicial contests, “now the community is going to have a say on how we’re judged,” Hall said.
Battaglia was elected in 2014 and came under scrutiny as the judge presiding over the cases of several protesters accused of pulling down a Confederate monument in Durham last summer. He acquitted three defendants before the district attorney dropped the remaining charges, and later suggested in remarks to members of the Durham County Republican Party that the prosecution had failed to prepare for the case.
Jones spent thirteen years with the public defender’s office in Durham before becoming an assistant district attorney in 2016.
For Hill, this election was the first time since being elected to the bench in 2002 that he has had to run against an opponent. It was also the first time he had to list his affiliation as a Republican on the ballot—a tough sell in Durham County, where just 12 percent of voters are registered as Republicans. (District, Superior, and Supreme Court races had been nonpartisan for about two decades. That changed beginning with this election.)
Both Hall and Jones had the endorsements of the People’s Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Friends of Durham endorsed the incumbents in both races.
District Court judges are elected to four-year terms. Incumbents were unopposed in four other District Court contests on the ballot.
Davis has practiced law for more than fifteen years, including as an assistant public defender in Fayetteville, an assistant attorney general with the state Department of Justice, and now as an assistant district attorney. Baxton has worked as an assistant public defender in Durham County since 1999 and has been second to the chief defender since 2006.
Davis was endorsed by the People’s Alliance, while Baxton had the support of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham.
With the election of new judges, a new DA, and a new sheriff, Davis said there’s an opportunity for a more equitable criminal justice system that values people and considers their individual circumstances.
“I think Durham voters are saying accountability matters, but most importantly, mercy matters. Our criminal justice system is broken, and it’s time for us to not think about punishment—it’s time to think about rehabilitation and how we can make people better,” Davis said of Tuesday’s results.
Superior Court judges are in office for eight years, and rotate among districts. Incumbents were unopposed for two other Superior Court seats, and Chief Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson was not up for reelection.
Tuesday’s results mean that six of seven District Court judges and two of four Superior Court judges serving Durham will be people of color, in addition to a city council that is majority people of color, a black police chief, black sheriff, and black district attorney.
The victories also come amid momentum to reform Durham’s criminal justice system. Voters already selected a reform-minded DA in Satana Deberry, who defeated incumbent Roger Echols in the May Democratic primary and who was unopposed in Tuesday’s general. Deberry, the former executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, says the DA’s office under her administration will create new guidelines for how prosecutors approach bail recommendations, plea bargains, and charging decisions.
Clarence Birkhead, who defeated incumbent sheriff Mike Andrews in May, easily defeated two write-in opponents in Tuesday’s general election. Birkhead has said he would run a more transparent agency, work to prevent in-custody deaths that have plagued the jail for years, and stop honoring requests from ICE to hold people without a judicial warrant. Birkhead, who won 92 percent of votes on Tuesday, will be the county’s first black sheriff.