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Judging the judges: Forums put candidates in public eye

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.

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