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Candidates in this year’s race for District Court judge fielded questions about the job they’re seeking to fill at a judge’s forum Oct. 14 hosted jointly by The Smoky Mountain News and the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute.

In front of a 50-person audience at Haywood Community College, candidates defended their positions and explained their views on the role of a judge in the District Court.

The forum was the second of two sponsored by the newspaper and the PPI. The first was held Oct. 12 at Western Carolina University.

Only one of the six candidates, Danya Ledford Vanhook, is currently a sitting judge. She was appointed to that post by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2009 and this will be her first election to try and retain the seat.

On Nov. 2, candidates will be vying for three open judge seats. Competing in the contest for seat one are Ledford Vanhook, who currently holds the position, and Donna Forga, a Waynesville attorney in solo practice who was employed as a factory worker before going back to school.

Seat two will be taken by either Kristina Earwood, also in solo practice, or David Sutton, a Waynesville attorney with the Kirkpatrick Law Firm. Earwood and Sutton were neck-and-neck in the primary race, with Sutton edging out Earwood by only 701 votes.

The third seat will be filled by Steve Ellis, another solo practitioner, or Roy Wijewickrama, who spent several years with the district attorney’s office before moving to his current post as a prosecutor in Cherokee.

The forum was moderated by Western Carolina University political science professor Todd Collins, and each candidate was given two minutes for each answer. The following is a selection of answers to each question.

Q: Which is more important in criminal sentencing, punishment or rehabilitation?

Steve Ellis: It usually depends on the person that’s in front of you. There’s some people that can benefit from rehabilitation. In other situations, if they’ve been before the court over and over again, the sentencing is determined by two things: the severity of the crime and what kind of criminal record the person has.

I think one of the jobs a judge has is that judgment factor, and I think experience in both the community and legal system plays into that.

Roy Wijewickrama: At the District Court level, the cases where you’re most likely to see criminal defendants receive active jail time are DWIs, domestic violence cases and child abuse cases. As a judge what I would look at — the first question I ask myself — is whether the safety of the public is at issue here? Sometimes, the punishment and rehabilitation do go hand-in-hand. I think rehabilitation is important, but at the same time the primary factor we must look at is whether the safety of the public is at issue.

Q: What steps would you take to make sure that all people are treated fairly in your courtroom?

David Sutton: That is, in my opinion, the absolute most important job we have as a District Court judge. The judge sets the tone for the entire courtroom. The judge must treat all of them with dignity and respect. If the judge does not, then it’s going to leave the door open for other individuals in the courtroom to do the same. Apply the law without prejudice to anyone. I think as a District Court judge, that’s how you set the tone in your courtroom. As long as you set the tone, then everyone else will follow.

Kristina Earwood: The District Court judges handle the volume of what I like to call the regular people. Most of the people that come in there are just the regular people that you’ll see in the grocery store or at the library. It’s very important to treat those people with respect. Its’ really important that when someone steps through the door of a courtroom, there is no color, there’s no race, there’s no economic line — justice is blind. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings. I do think it’s very important because of the impact we have on people’s lives.

Q: What do you think will be the most difficult challenge in serving as a District Court judge, and how do you think you’ll rise to that challenge?

Donna Forga: The biggest challenge will be living up to the District Court judges we have. I want to be able to pay a lot of attention to the judges and keep the fabulous degree of judges that we have now.

Danya Ledford Vanhook: The greatest challenge of the job is knowing that every piece of paper that comes before me in a case with a child – it is a child’s life. It is not always that I get to meet the child, but I rely on the expertise of others in the community. That is the greatest challenge — using and utilizing my personal experience.

Candidates for District Court judge will espouse their vision for the bench at election forums held next week in Haywood and Jackson County.

“Judges make decisions every day that directly influence people’s lives, yet many voters don’t know where judicial candidates stand on the most important issues of the day,” said Chris Cooper, WCU associate professor of political science and public affairs, and director of the Public Policy Institute. “We want to help voters learn what they need to know about the people who want to represent them in the judiciary.”

Candidates in other local races will be given two-minutes at the mic prior to the judge hopefuls taking the stage. The forums will be sponsored by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News. The two forums are:

• 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Western Carolina University Multipurpose Room of A.K. Hinds University Center.

• 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, at Haywood Community College auditorium.

A reception will be held from 6:30 to 7 p.m. where voters can talk informally with the candidates for judge and other local offices. The formal portion of the forum will begin at 7 p.m. Local candidates who attend — county commissioner, school board, sheriff, and state representative or senate candidates — will get two minutes each to introduce themselves and discuss their platforms.

Todd Collins, WCU assistant professor of political science and public affairs, will serve as moderator of the forum with the judicial candidates. Questions will be developed prior to the forum, but audience participation will be allowed as time permits.

For information, contact the Public Policy Institute at 828.227.2086 or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Not a day goes by that Judge Monica Leslie doesn’t realize the gravity of her decisions.

Leslie is one of six District Court judges in the seven western counties. They decide how to split property and wealth when a couple gets divorced. They decide whether a restraining order is warranted in a domestic violence claim. They make heart-wrenching decisions in custody battles. And perhaps most difficult, decide whether a parent with a history of neglect is ready to get their children back.

“We deal with families in crisis,” Leslie said.

Gavin Brown, a Waynesville attorney, said that in some ways who serves as judge is more important than the president.

“A District Court judge affects the citizens directly in my community and on a daily basis. They take care of domestic disputes, they take care of foreclosures, they take care of car wrecks and traffic violations,” Brown said. “They are so critical in everyday life — in what they say and do and how they do it.”

There’s even more at stake in this year’s judge race than normal, however. Three long-time judges have retired in the past two years — creating a void of experience. Turnover is rare on the bench, let alone this level of turnover all at one time.

“Once you win a position as a judge, barring a health problem or some personal issue, you don’t lose that job,” said Brown.

Out of six District Court judges for the region, half are in flux. The watershed election year attracted a staggering 10 judge candidates in the May primary. The list has now been narrowed to six going into the November race. Two candidates are vying for each seat, with each still considered a toss-up just a month away from Election Day.

Two of the three seats will fill vacancies left by Judges Danny Davis and Steve Bryant — who retired this summer with a combined 50 years of experience on the bench.

“Whoever replaces them will have big shoes to fill and will need to be able to handle the load almost immediately,” said Judge Richie Holt, now the senior District Court judge with 17 years on the bench. “My number one job in the next year is to get everybody going on the right direction and handling the cases adequately and appropriately.”

That’s not to say that different styles of running a courtroom can’t be equally effective, he said.

“The folks can use their own styles and their own personality, but it will take them a while to figure out what type of things to do or say to keep it moving,” Holt said.

The legal community will certainly tread cautiously until they get used to the new lay of the land — and the tendencies that the new judges manifest.

“From a lawyer’s point of view, lawyers like consistency. We like to be able to predict under certain sets of facts what the likely outcome might be so we can advise our clients accordingly,” said Don Patten, a Haywood County attorney.

That’s going to be tough when 50 percent of the judiciary will essentially be new at the job.

“I would guess the general public, I don’t think they have any idea the gravity of our situation to a certain extent,” said David Moore, a Sylva attorney.

That said, experience isn’t everything.

“Temperament, knowledge, skill, intelligence — those are all factors that are fairly critical,” Moore added.

Not to mention time management. There’s hundreds of cases on the line across the seven-county district every month.

“You sure want someone who knows what they are doing and can handle it fairly, judiciously and expediently,” said Patten.

The election for District Court judges is non-partisan. In other words, candidates on the ballot won’t be labeled as Democrats or Republicans. Partisan views aren’t as relevant as personality traits when it comes to electing judges.

To help voters familiarize themselves with the candidates, Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News are putting on two forums next week.

“This particular judicial race is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for this region,” said Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod. “Three District Court judge seats being decided in one election is very unusual, and so we hope voters will take the opportunity to familiarize themselves with who is running and their backgrounds.”

On the bright side, after this hump the bench will most likely enjoy another 20 to 30 years of long-term stability, Brown pointed out.

See also: Judge candidates to take stage in Jackson, Haywood next week

 

Who’s running for district court judge

Seat 1

• Danya Vanhook, a sitting judge based in Haywood County who’s been on the job a little over a year

• Donna Forga, Waynesville attorney in solo practice

Seat 2

• Kris Earwood, Sylva attorney with solo practice (formerly of firm Lay and Earwood)

• David Sutton, Waynesville attorney with Kirkpatrick law firm

Seat 3

• Steve Ellis, Waynesville attorney in solo practice (formerly with the firm Brown, Ward and Haynes)

• Roy Wijewickrama, Waynesville attorney serving as prosecutor in Cherokee

Attorneys in the state’s seven westernmost counties sent a message to the governor this week that they don’t want a temporary fill-in as judge before the November election.

The retirement of longtime District Court Judge Danny Davis would typically trigger an appointment. But with a contested election for the judge’s seat just three months away, members of the N.C. Bar Association didn’t recommend anyone for the post.

Fifty-five of the 242 bar association members gathered Monday night at the Swain County Administration Building to vote on potential nominees. None of the lawyers, however, submitted their names as potential candidates, said Elizabeth Brigham, a Bryson City-based lawyer who serves as the bar’s current president.

Rather than using secret written ballots to select their top three candidates for Gov. Bev Perdue to review, bar members instead voted by a show of hands to accept a motion they make no recommendation.

“We really didn’t see any point in filling the vacancy for such a short amount of time,” Brigham said. “It didn’t make any sense.”

Davis, who served as judge for 26 years, stepped down July 31. Steve Ellis and Roy Wijewickrama, both Waynesville residents, are vying to fill the post in the nonpartisan race.

Perdue has the final say-so on whether there will be an interim judge named. Even if bar members had recommended candidates, the governor could have selected someone else not on their list. The timing is tight, however. It seems unlikely that Perdue could — even if she wanted to — find a lawyer willing to shut down their legal practice for the short time the post would remain unfilled.

Neither Ellis nor Wijewickrama wanted a nominee. They had both asked fellow bar members to leave the seat vacant until the November elections.

Brigham plans to send the results of the bar vote to Perdue this week. If the governor, as expected, doesn’t name a stand-in, Davis will continue to fill the vacancy as needed in the capacity of “emergency” judge.

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