Chief District Court Judge Richie Holt is retiring in April. The seat won’t come up for election until 2016, so in the meantime a new judge will be appointed.
The appointment is ultimately up to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. But first, the roughly 200 practicing attorneys in the seven western counties will vote on a slate of candidates. Their top picks will then be sent up the chain to Gov. McCrory for a final selection.
It’s been five years since attorneys in the seven western counties last went through a District Court judge appointment. There’s a subtle yet potentially major difference this time, said Diane Sherrill, a Sylva attorney who serves as the N.C. Bar Association president for the 30th judicial district.
“The governor is no longer mandated to choose one of the nominees from the bar,” Sherrill said. “He can choose whoever he wants.”
The rules for making appointments to District Court vacancies were changed by the General Assembly last year. Before, the bar forwarded only its top three choices to the governor, who was obligated to pick one of those three.
Now the top five candidates from the bar vote are sent to the governor, but he doesn’t have to pick one of those five. McCrory may indeed stick with one of the bar’s recommendations in order not to alienate the legal community, but that remains to be seen.
“We haven’t seen it in practice yet,” Sherrill said of the new law.
Since McCrory is a Republican, it’s unlikely that any Democrats will bother putting their name in the ring. In the end, there may not even be five attorneys vying for the appointment.
“If we don’t have five to nominate, we nominate as many as we have,” Sherrill said.
The vote tally among bar members will be submitted to the governor with the list of nominees.
Before voting, the bar members will convene in a forum to hear from everyone seeking the seat. But there’s no timeline yet for when that might happen.
As of last week, Holt had not sent his official retirement notice to Raleigh. Until then, the ball won’t get rolling. Holt is one of only six District Court judges serving the seven western counties. Sherrill hopes there won’t be much of a lag between his retirement and a new appointment by the governor.
With word of Holt’s retirement already circulating publicly, some attorneys have gone ahead and announced their intentions.
Here’s who The Smoky Mountain News knows about so far:
• Kristy Parton, 37, solo family law attorney in Sylva.
Parton primarily practices family law, such as divorce, child custody, equitable distribution and separation agreements.
“It would be helpful to have a judge on the bench whose primary familiarity is family law. Family law is very subjective and there are a lot of nuances to it,” Parton said.
Parton grew up in Bryson City. She worked for a publishing company in Greensboro after college for a few years before returning to law school. She’s been practicing since 2009. Parton is not married and does not have children.
• Tessa Sellers, 36, all-around solo practice in Murphy.
Sellers, who worked as an assistant district attorney for five years, does a full gamut of criminal, civil and family law cases.
“I have a very good sense of what it takes to be on the bench. I am level-headed and easy-going and feel I have the appropriate temperament for the bench,” Sellers said.
Sellers grew up in Hayesville, where she lives now. She said the far western counties are under-represented on the District Court bench. Five of the six District Court judges are based in Haywood County.
Sellers is married with two kids, ages 3 and 5.
• Hunter Murphy, 33, all-around solo practice in Waynesville.
Murphy practices both criminal and civil cases, but with a higher concentration of criminal. In District Court, where the judge and jury are one and the same, fairness on the bench is paramount, he said.
“District Court is where most people who ever come in contact with the court system are going to be. Knowing that you are going to be listened to no matter what the situation, and you can respect the result that you get,” Murphy said.
Murphy practiced in Sylva for six years with a partner before opening his own practice in Waynesville, where he lives. Murphy has lived in Waynesville since he was 14. His family moved to the area when his father bought Jackson Paper plant in Sylva.
Murphy is married and has twin 3-year-olds. His wife works part-time as an office manager for his practice.
• Sean Johnson. Johnson has sent a letter to members of the N.C. Bar Association in the judicial district announcing his candidacy but did not return messages.