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N.C. Supreme Court
In January, Gov. Mike Easley promoted Sarah Parker from associate to chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Later that month, he selected Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a Court of Appeals judge, to fill Parker’s old position. Those political appointments doubled the number of Democrats on the state’s highest court; Parker and Timmons-Goodson now hold down the liberal wing on the seven-member bench (though Parker is more moderate than her counterpart). But with four contested seats on the ballot in November, the election could undo Easley’s political maneuverings and reshape the character of the bench for years to come.
Ironically enough, these potential changes come in the midst of the court’s shift away from partisan politics. In an attempt to help judges attain and maintain the appearance of impartiality, the General Assembly voted in 2002 to make the statewide Supreme Court and Court of Appeals races nonpartisan, as local Superior and District Court races already were. So this year’s campaign environment is one in which the political make up of the court is at stake, but candidates are encouraged to run nonpartisan campaigns. The conflict has produced some interesting results.
In the race for chief justice–the administrative leader of the court system–appointed incumbent Sarah Parker faces Pitt County Superior Court Judge Rusty Duke. Duke is a candidate who wears his political beliefs on the right sleeve of his judicial robe, gushing with conservative rhetoric on the campaign trail. Coming out against “activist judges,” as Duke has, is a sure sign of a right-wing ideologue. The truth is, the North Carolina courts are not full of activist judges overturning constitutional safeguards. Those who claim otherwise are either telegraphing how they plan to vote or trying to rouse the rabble who have put a conservative majority on the bench in the last several elections. In the case of Duke, it’s probably a little of both.
We endorse Sarah Parker, a 13-year veteran of the Supreme Court, despite the fact that she has frustrated liberals with her unwillingness to establish a different judicial mindset than conservatives on the court. Observers denounce her deference to government, especially law enforcement, and her lack of support for individuals. Still, Parker beats Duke hands down.
In the first of three contested races for associate justice, challenger Rachel Lea Hunter faces incumbent Associate Justice Mark Martin. Hunter’s vindictive comments and her kooky campaign tactics have managed to alienate almost everyone, including both political parties and her own campaign manager, who quit and said, “There have been way too many political positions taken by the campaign. I fear that Rachel would have to recuse herself from a tremendous number of cases.”
If Duke is trying to excite the Christian right, Hunter, who has just five years of experience as a lawyer and no experience on the bench, is after the lefties (despite the fact that she courted Republicans when she ran in 2004). She’s called for the impeachment of President Bush, come out against the war in Iraq, and questioned whether oil companies are manipulating the price of gasoline. But the court is not in need of an ideologue, especially a confused one. Judges’ races are nonpartisan for a reason. Intelligent candidates who understand the law and apply it fairly should prevail.
Fortunately, Mark Martin is running for re-election. He has garnered strong bipartisan support, in part because Hunter is so disdained but also because he has one of the sharpest legal minds on the bench. He’s been a judge for 14 years, serving at the Superior Court and Court of Appeals levels. He has taught law students at UNC, N.C. Central and Duke. He writes thoughtful opinions that often break with his conservative colleagues and, observers say, doesn’t bring pre-conceived notions to his decisions. We need more conservatives like Martin on the bench.
Recently appointed incumbent Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court (and before that, the Court of Appeals) is the most liberal justice on the bench. She’s a level-headed judge who asks appropriate questions, and her opinions reflect her disposition. She has run a low-key campaign based on her knowledge of the law, sound judgment and work ethic.
Eric Levinson has been a judge on the Court of Appeals since he was elected in 2002. He served as a prosecutor and District Court judge before taking his seat on the bench.
There are two strong candidates in the race for this open seat: Ann Marie Calabria faces Robin Hudson. Both candidates currently sit on the Court of Appeals, Hudson since 2001 and Calabria since 2003. We endorsed Hudson when she ran as a Democrat in 2000, noting her legal advocacy for workers’ rights and her leadership with occupational safety and health issues. We endorsed Calabria when she ran as a Republican in 2002, noting her commitment to Spanish speakers in the courtroom and her legal creativity.
In the time the two have been on the court together, they have been on the same case panels 52 times and differed in their opinions only twice. But other decisions distinguish them. Calabria has caused concern among lawyers with some of her recent opinions. And she has instituted draconian requirements of rules compliance that are more harmful than helpful in dealing with criminal cases. We prefer Robin Hudson for Supreme Court not only because of Calabria’s recent decisions but because, as a liberal, Hudson is more likely to rule against the death penalty. Capital cases go straight to the highest court.
N.C. Court of Appeals
We stand by our primary endorsement of incumbent Robert C. “Bob” Hunter of Raleigh. An eight-year veteran of the Court of Appeals, Hunter has also served 18 years in the state House and nearly 30 years in private practice. Endorsed by the Democratic Party and the N.C. Association of Educators, Hunter has the range of experience in state government and law that gives him the nod over his opponent, Kris Bailey. Bailey is currently the general counsel to state auditor Les Merritt. Before that, he served one four-year term in Wake County District Court.
There are two strong candidates in this race between recently appointed incumbent Linda Stephens, whom we endorsed in the primary, and Wake District Court Judge Donna Stroud. Before Gov. Mike Easley appointed Stephens to the Court of Appeals, she practiced law for more than 20 years, primarily as a defense attorney. She’s held leadership positions in the N.C. Association of Defense Attorneys and the N.C. Defense Fund. She has collected a long list of endorsements for her appellate candidacy including the AFL-CIO, the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, The News & Observer, and the Durham People’s Alliance. We stand by our primary endorsement. Donna Stroud was elected Wake County District Court Judge in 2004. Before that she worked in private practice with a focus on civil litigation, particularly domestic law.