Three open judge seats leads to crowded field of hopefuls

While a hotly contested judge’s race is dominating the water cooler gossip in lawyers’ offices, the average voter likely has their work cut out for them.

The choices are overwhelming: 10 candidates running for three seats. All the names on the ballot are likely brand new to those outside the legal arena, leaving voters little to go by other than brief synopses of the candidates in the newspaper at best — and at worst the color scheme of their yard signs or a game of eenie-meenie-minie-moe inside the polling booth.

“Certainly the challenge will be to separate yourself from the other candidates,” said Caleb Rogers, an attorney from Waynesville and one of the candidates.

It’s an unprecedented level of competition for a judge’s race. But then again, it is an unprecedented state of affairs.

Once elected, judges usually park themselves in the seat and become unmovable by competition despite being up for election every four years. The only in-road to the bench comes when a judge steps down, which is what makes 2010 a watershed year.

Two of three seats up for election are being vacated by retiring judges. The third seat has been occupied for less than a year by an appointed judge, so the incumbent doesn’t have an entrenched toehold yet.

A competitive race for judge is rare occurrence, let alone three seats up for election the same year in one judicial district. Candidates realized it was a now or never moment. The outcome of the race will also bring major changes to the bench. Of six District Court judges serving in the seven western counties, three will be new to the bench within the past year and two more will be new since 2004 — leaving just one judge who has served longer than a decade.

Attorney Kris Earwood, one of the candidates, is humbled to think about the level of experience stepping down from the bench with this election: a combined 48 years between Judge Danny Davis and Steve Bryant.

“I think it is monumental,” Earwood said.

There’s another factor that could have spurred a larger-than-normal contest this year: money. The starting salary for a judge is $109,000, but can climb much higher for judges with a long tenure thanks to cost of living raises plus a bump in pay for every five years on the bench.

While the best-paid lawyers make far more than judges ever would, the economy has taken a toll on the practices of many lawyers who depended on real estate work, making the steady six-figure salary look all the more attractive.

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