Of all the statewide primary races, none are more mysterious than those for seats on the state Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals. Judicial candidates in these nonpartisan races usually hold their hands close to their chests to avoid appearances of bias. Many candidates are unknown legal professionals who all claim experience and integrity but say little about their personal views on contentious issues such as abortion or the death penalty.
Chris Heagarty, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, says it’s crucial that citizens enter the voting booth well informed on May 2, when three judicial primaries will be contested in North Carolina.
“These races are often ignored by the mainstream media because they generally do not have the excitement of hot-button issues, flashy television commercials or political drama,” Heagarty said. “Judicial races tend to focus on experience, legal background and maybe hints about judicial philosophy.
“People seem to forget that the actions and decisions of our courts have an impact on policy that shapes most aspects of our lives, from education policy and school funding to tax policy, from our personal rights and freedoms to even whether or not our vote counts. That is what is at stake, and that is why voters need to be vigilant about who is getting elected to our courts and what they stand for.
“When voters take themselves out of the role of being careful arbiters of whom should serve in our courts, they essentially surrender this right to others, who may not have their best interests at heart.”
State Supreme Court, Associate Justice
Five candidates are vying for an open seat on the state’s highest court, and we support sitting N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Robin Hudson of Raleigh.
In 2000, Hudson, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a law degree from UNC, made history as the first woman to be elected to the appeals court who was not appointed first.
With three decades of varied legal experience, Hudson is far and away the best choice for this post. Her legal background includes all areas of law, civil and criminal. Hudson has worked as an assistant appellate defender and as an administrative law judge. She serves on the N.C. Occupational Safety and Review board.
In interviews with more than a dozen lawyers, Hudson was the clear, unanimous choice among progressives. “Hudson is just great,” one lawyer said. “We’d be very lucky to have her as a state Supreme Court justice.”
Hudson also gets high marks from former Chief Justices Burley Mitchell, James Exum and Henry Frye, who in a statement say Hudson “is a sound legal scholar who is fair and impartial.”
Endorsed by teachers, lawyers, working people and women’s groups, Hudson has no equal.
Hudson faces N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Ann Marie Calabria, a judicial conservative who is endorsed by the Republican Party. “I brought criminals to justice, fought retroactive taxation and protected children and families,” Calabria wrote in a statement.
Carrboro’s Jill Ledford Cheek has lots of experience. Unfortunately, Cheek has been fine-tuning her legal skills working in the N.C. Department of Justice in the state attorney general’s office “fighting for victims of crime,” which has included backing the death penalty.
One progressive lawyer called candidate Beecher “Gus” Gray of Durham a “moderately conservative” nice guy. Still, Gray, an administrative law judge, lacks the experience of Hudson.
Democrat William C. Gore Jr. of Whiteville is a Superior Court judge who is very conservative. While Gore has the intelligence and experience for the job, his conservative pedigree is a drawback. One death penalty appellate lawyer said Gore is “someone we avoid if we can.”
Judge, N.C. Court of Appeals
Incumbent Robert C. (Bob) Hunter of Raleigh gets our nod in this three-way race. After 18 years in the N.C. House of Representatives and almost three decades in private practice, Hunter has been on the appeals bench since 1998. A moderate to conservative Democrat, Hunter is another body in the long line of generally conservative white males who have sat on the court for decades. Still, one prominent defense attorney says Hunter has “turned out to be a pretty good judge.”
Endorsed by the Democratic Party and the N.C. Association of Educators, Hunter, a UNC law graduate, has the range of experience in state government and law that gives him the clear nod over his opponents.
Kris Bailey of Cary serves as general council to state auditor Leslie Merritt. In his statement, Bailey touts his integrity, experience and “common sense,” all admirable qualities, but his lack of judicial experience simply precludes Bailey from consideration for such an important judicial post.
Charlotte District Court Judge Bill Constangy is conservative with a capital C. Endorsed by the Republican Party, Constangy touts his superior “judicial experience” in his election statement, but lawyers who have seen him in action say Constangy’s judicial philosophy is far to the right.
Judge, N.C. Court of Appeals
Despite having no experience as a judge, Gov. Mike Easley appointed longtime lawyer Linda Stephens, wife of Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, to the appeals court last February. Despite her lack of judicial experience, Stephens is the best-qualified candidate for the post over her two less-experienced opponents. She also has the Democratic Party endorsement.
A South Carolina native, Stephens was the first member of her family to attend college. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of South Carolina with a journalism degree. She graduated from the UNC School of Law in 1979 and has spent most of her legal career in civil law, mostly representing plaintiffs in insurance matters.
In a podcast produced by the Center for Voter Education, Stephens said it was “not appropriate” for judges to discuss specific issues, but her “highest goal as a judge is to apply the law as it is written,” even if said law would conflict with her “personal views.”
Stephens touts herself as hard worker who has broken through several law-related glass ceilings. She was the first woman president of the N.C. Association of Defense Attorneys, and N.C. Super Lawyers magazine listed her as one of the top 50 women lawyers in the state.
Stephens said her judicial philosophy “is simple. Work hard. Judge fairly. Listen impartially. Treat all parties with respect. Seek to ensure justice.”
This race was a close call. Guilford County assistant district attorney Christopher L. (Chris) Parrish of Oak Ridge is a registered Republican who has broad support across party lines. Progressive defense attorneys throughout the Triad give Parrish high marks. “I always find him to be very fair, very honest; just a stand-up guy,” one progressive attorney said. “He’s a reasonable guy, and he’s pretty low key.”
Still, Parrish, 34, a 1999 Campbell Law graduate, lacks the experience to sit on the state’s second-highest court.
Candidate Donna Stroud of Zebulon is a District Count judge who is endorsed by the Republican Party. Although she graduated first in her class from Campbell University School of Law in 1988 and is the lone judge in the race, Stroud is simply too conservative for the job.