They are important though, possibly even more so than legislative races, in that a single judge (or a panel of them) has the power to make important decisions on cases that can change people’s lives.
Haywood County’s 2016 election resulted in a loss of influence for the county legislatively, but the county did score an important victory judicially when a local underdog who was badly outspent refused to be outworked.
Despite his statewide electoral victory, Hunter Murphy remains somewhat unknown to many. Born in Arizona, Murphy moved to Western North Carolina right before high school, when his father bought Jackson Paper in Sylva in 1995.
“We moved all around before I ended up here in Waynesville,” Murphy said. “We were down in Phoenix and then we moved away from there when I was about 4, lived in Dallas, Georgia, Albuquerque and back to Atlanta.”
Murphy graduated from Tuscola High School in 1999 and then from UNC Chapel Hill in 2003 with degrees in economics and religious studies before going on to the University of the Pacific in Sacramento for law school.
Even though he’s lived all over the country, he “very much” considers Western North Carolina his home, so when he began to practice law, he knew exactly where he was headed.
“I really decided during law school that I wanted to do small town practice — things that could really help people with their real problems — and decided there’s no reason to be anywhere else but home to do that,” he said.
Starting in 2006, Murphy began working with attorney Eric Ridenhour in Sylva.
“We did a lot of civil litigation, criminal work, real estate work,” he said. “I didn’t really love the real estate transaction side of it, but we did a lot of real estate litigation, which I enjoyed a great deal.”
Against the odds
Murphy admittedly enjoyed seeing his work benefit his clients, but he also had aspirations of donning the black robe himself one day. After practicing law in Western North Carolina for more than eight years, it wouldn’t be long before he took his chances at the polls.
In August 2014, Chief Judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals John Charles Martin retired; Murphy saw his opportunity, and took it.
“I was actually one of the first people to declare that I was running for that race,” Murphy said. “I always had my eyes on eventually running for the North Carolina Court of Appeals — it was always in my plans.”
Although Murphy had his sights set on the 2016 election, Judge Martin’s unexpected retirement induced him to make a run for the court two years earlier than planned.
An astonishing 18 other candidates felt likewise, severely fragmenting the Nov. 4, 2014, votes. The majority of candidates earned less than 5 percent of the vote and the winner, Fayetteville native and former Court of Appeals Judge John M. Tyson, earned just 23 percent.
Murphy ended up with 103,000 votes, good for 4.42 percent and a seventh place finish. Far from discouraged, he recognized that he’d made a strong showing his first time out despite living in a town smaller than some Fayetteville neighborhoods, so when Appeals Court Judge Martha Geer announced her retirement in March 2016, Murphy resumed campaigning.
“We just kept our foot on the gas, and when this opportunity came about to run we worked real hard,” Murphy said.
And by “we,” Murphy means not only his small legion of dedicated supporters, but also his biggest supporter — wife Kellie, who he met while he was in law school.
“She kept everything squared away back here so that I could be out on the road. We went without a true campaign manager — we had a lot of advisors, people we talked to a lot, but every decision we made Kellie and I pretty much bounced off each other, since the ones I made on my own usually didn’t turn out as well as the ones that she gave me advice on,” he laughed.
“We make a great team,” she said.
Murphy and his wife have 6-year-old twins, so having a supportive partner was a prerequisite to any run for public office.
“We were practicing law the entire time that I was out running, so there’s no way we would’ve done that without her being on top of every file and knowing what’s going on with every case, making sure I knew where I needed to be,” he said.
After the 2014 elections, Court of Appeals races became a partisan affair, so in 2016, Murphy says he tried to “clear the field” to avoid a divisive and expensive primary.
“I put a lot of energy and effort into making sure everybody understood why I was the best choice for us [Republicans], and it worked out well,” he said. “I ran against just one other Democrat and one independent gentleman and it was a lot of fun.”
Driving from one end of the state to the other for a solid two years isn’t everybody’s idea of fun, but Murphy seems to truly enjoy meeting people and learning about their lives and concerns as a means to be better prepared to address their issues in the courtroom.
“It was a great opportunity to really connect with the whole state,” said Murphy. “I had been doing what I did for two years — going to court in Bryson City and then being at a dinner in Raleigh that night, or being at an event in Brunswick County on a Saturday morning. I want to know the whole state. I want to know all the people across our state, and what they need in the Court of Appeals.”
During what he called the four month “execution phase” of a campaign he’d more or less been running since 2014, Murphy utilized the statewide network he’d painstakingly built to spread his message. He said he didn’t have any particular family, professional or personal connections outside Western North Carolina, meaning he started from scratch.
“Friends, family, people that we didn’t know six months ago were out there in the rain, putting up signs for us, handing out slate cards and things like that. It made a difference,” he said. “It really did.”
Including both the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, Murphy said he was on pace to hit all 100 counties in the state until Hurricane Matthew made that impossible.
“A lot of background work from 2014 is what enabled us to be in the position we were this year,” he said, noting that his two campaigns had spent a total of about $90,000, the bulk of it self-funded.
“Between us, my family, that’s where the bulk of our fundraising came from,” he said.
But Murphy was outspent by what he guesstimates is a 7-to-1 margin; even worse for Murphy, his main opponent Margaret Eagles was and is a Wake County district court judge, giving her a huge built-in base of name recognition in the densely-populated Raleigh area.
“Winning a statewide election with an 828 phone number isn’t always the easiest thing to do,” he said.
Murphy doubtlessly benefitted from the Republican surge on Nov. 8, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t elected on his own merit. His 2,159,193 votes to Eagles’ 2,021,769 gave him a comfortable 48.7 to 45.6 percent margin.
“I think it shows that what you’re saying matters more than what money is behind you,” he said. “I know there was a good groundswell of people out there actively voting for me, thinking about me. When we were out at the polls people would say, ‘I looked you up on Facebook, really liked your family, like what you had to say.’ And that felt good.”
To his credit — and to Eagles’ — Murphy even earned a heartwarming conciliatory note from his opponent after his victory. A statement on her website thanking friends, family and supporters also congratulates Murphy, “as he conducted himself with dignity and honor.”
Luckily for Murphy, the newly partisan nature of the race allowed him to run under his party affiliation, giving voters a generic sense of who they might want on the bench. He says he’s been a registered Republican his whole life, save a short stint as an unaffiliated voter.
“I think fiscal conservatism is very important, and I’m socially conservative, but in the Court of Appeals situation, that’s not really something we get to express,” he said.
Why then would what is essentially a job application for a position which requires impartial decision-making now demand a declaration of party affiliation from an applicant who isn’t allowed to posit how they might be so inclined to rule on any particular case anyway?
“I think part of the motivation in going partisan with these races was, people ask,” said Murphy. “Voters care. And I’m not one to tell the voters what they should or shouldn’t care about. I’m going to put everything out there about myself on my background, my experience, cases I’ve worked on. The main thing we tried to push during the election was, ‘Go read the cases I’ve worked on. Read the briefs I’ve written. Look at my legal reasoning skills and decide if I’m the right person.’”
For better or for worse, Murphy said, a lot of people still care about party affiliation, even in judicial races.
“If we could keep politics completely out of the judicial process, I’d be all for it. But the fact that somebody is using somebody’s party affiliation as a filter, they’re going to do it, and I’d rather them pick me because I am a Republican than they like how my name sounds, or what my gender is, or where I live or anything like that. I think it’s important that people can filter based on what they want to filter on.”
When Murphy took his oath at midnight on Jan. 1, 2017, he joined 10 other Republicans on the Court of Appeals, as well as four Democrats — a composition reflective of recent electoral gains made by Republicans in the state. Personally, Murphy doesn’t feel that politics has a place or presence on the court.
“There are going to be Republicans that hate some of the opinions that I write, and there’s going to be Democrats that hate some opinions that I write. It’s just the nature of how the courts work,” he said.
How, exactly, the courts work remains a mystery to many, especially on the appellate level.
North Carolina has three levels of trial courts — Small Claims Court, District Court and Superior Court. Cases in Small Claims Court can be automatically appealed to District Court; from District Court in civil cases — whether a case starts in District Court or Superior Court — the losing party has an automatic right to appeal to the Court of Appeals in many instances.
From District Court in criminal cases, misdemeanor convictions come with the automatic right to appeal to a jury trial in the Superior Court; thus most criminal appeals come as of the Superior Court jury trial, which can go on to the Court of Appeals.
According to Murphy, the Court of Appeals handles about 4,500 petitions and motions a year, and issues about 1,700 written decisions and opinions on full-blown cases during the same time period.
“We sit in three-judge panels. It’s rotated about every six weeks,” he said, again stressing his view that politics really isn’t in play on the court despite the partisan elections that now put judges there.
“If you look at the Court of Appeals, the make up of it, and how opinions have come down over the years, you have a panel of three judges,” he said. “You don’t know how it’s going to come out based on their party affiliation. It’s not really a consideration in the voting process. Part of that is the rotation amongst the judges. You’re working with pretty much every judge, every year, on 30 to 40 cases with each judge. So the partisanship and feelings of partisanship I don’t believe really exist at the Court of Appeals.”
The panels sit in Raleigh, but occasionally, judges are empaneled in different parts of the state — something Murphy, as the only Court of Appeals judge west of Winston-Salem, hopes to promote.
Indeed, Murphy’s very presence on the court gives the most populous county west of Buncombe badly needed capitol cachet as it continues smarting from the Election Day loss of its only state legislator, Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.
“I think it means that people won’t forget that we’re out here, number one,” he said. “They won’t think the state ends at Hickory or Statesville, or even Asheville now, because everybody thinks of Asheville as way out. I go to the east and say I’m from the mountains, and they say ‘Oh you mean Hickory?’ and I’d say ‘No, nowhere near Hickory.’”
Murphy has practiced extensively in Western North Carolina, and is frank about what his contributions to the rest of the state might be.
“Having practiced in all those counties and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, I think it’s important to lend that perspective to the court — to have those judges understand what it’s like for people that practice out here, what it’s like for the people that live out here. When you have judges covering a seven-county district bigger than the state of Delaware, it’s the physical demands on our attorneys in addition to the mental demands, which are pretty stringent. I think having that perspective in the Court of Appeals will be very good when they’re analyzing cases, when they’re looking at what things are like for people in Western North Carolina.”
Murphy, who is just 35 years old, will be 43 when his eight-year term is up.
“Basically, I’m a dad, and I’m a lawyer, and a husband, and that’s kind of where I enjoy my time,” he said. “Now I’ve got the Court of Appeals on top of that.”
Although he’s already seen many of his hobbies — like playing fantasy football and watching college basketball — fall by the wayside, he said he hopes to get back into coaching Little League baseball once he settles in to his new job.
“It’s really going to be a lot of fun. It’s the job I’ve always wanted to do. Politics was the means to an end instead of the other way around, you know, wanting to be political and doing this to run for something. This is the job I’ve always wanted,” he said. “I can’t believe 2.15 million people voted for me on Nov. 8. It’s really humbling. It’s been a real battle and a real test of our time and our endurance, and it’s been worth it at every turn.”