“Though it is a difficult decision to leave the bench, particularly after recently being re-elected, I have decided to retire,” Letts said in a statement released Tuesday morning, Feb. 26. “My plans are to enjoy family and friends, and continue my involvement in civic and community boards.”
According to the statement, his retirement will be effective Thursday, Feb. 28, less than four months after winning a new eight-year term on the bench against challenger Mark Melrose. In the November contest, Letts, 51 at the time of the election, defeated Melrose with 54.6 percent of the vote to Melrose’s 45.4 percent following a hotly contested campaign.
Melrose offered sharp criticism of Letts’ decision to retire so soon after the election, saying that Letts has “made a mockery of the political process and betrayed the people who supported him.”
“This is a common political scheme where somebody runs for re-election, doesn’t serve out their term and resigns so the governor can make an appointment,” said Melrose. “Typically that successor is somebody who’s already been discussed between the one who’s resigning and the one who does the appointing.”
Gov. Roy Cooper will select a replacement for Letts, but that person will serve only until the General Election in 2020, when voters will select someone to begin a new eight-year term. Melrose said that he needs time to consider whether he will run in that election but would not rule it out offhand.
Haywood County Bar Association President Danya Vanhook said that she expects the seat to remain empty for about a month before Cooper makes his pick, with a new judge on the bench by April 1. Over the 10 days following Letts’ retirement, would-be judges will send their cover letters and résumés on to Raleigh. Traditionally, the governor has invited the top two candidates to talk with him further before making his selection.
Letts has led the Superior Court of District 30B ever since 2009, when then-Governor Bev Perdue appointed him to fill the seat of retiring judge Marlene Hyatt, who still had nearly two years left in her term. Letts ran unopposed for an eight-year term in 2010. Previously to his Superior Court appointment, Letts served as a district judge beginning in 2000 following an appointment from then-Gov. Jim Hunt, winning re-election in 2002 and 2006.
“I am eternally indebted to the citizens of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties for their support and confidence reposed in me over these past two decades,” Letts said in his statement. “I am humbled and honored to have served as a judge in these counties working with the caring, competent and committed people in the court system and the law enforcement community who work tirelessly daily to improve justice in our communities.”
Letts’ flagship initiative toward that end was a pretrial release program aimed at allowing people facing charges for low-level, nonviolent offenses to continue to work while awaiting trial rather than staying in jail due to an inability to post bond. The program is still in the early stages of implementation and will now fall to his successor to carry on.
“I think Judge Letts has done an amazing job as a judge and trying to be innovative, but at the same time understand the role of the legal system in our changing world,” said Zeb Smathers, a local attorney who also serves as mayor of Canton and is a past president of the Haywood County Bar Association. “I think the thing that I will remember and I appreciate the most is how he treated my clients, no matter who they were or what their situation was. Especially with my criminal clients, they always appreciated that.”
Vanhook credited Letts with vastly improving courthouse security in Haywood and Jackson counties, and with increasing the court’s efficiency by instituting one week of administrative court each month. During administrative court, judges and attorneys deal with pleas and other administrative matters that don’t require a jury, reducing the strain on jury members and allowing cases to be resolved more quickly.
“He’s done a lot and he will be missed, but I do believe his legacy will carry on,” Vanhook said.
Letts is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and rumors had been circulating for some time that he was planning to run for principal chief in this year’s election. When asked Tuesday, Feb. 19, whether there was any truth to those rumors, Letts said he would make a decision by the end of the week. On Tuesday, Feb. 26, he released the statement announcing his retirement without mention of any plans for candidacy.
However, he was unambiguous when asked about those plans in a follow-up email. The Smoky Mountain News asked whether he had any plans to run for tribal office, and Letts said that he did not. SMN then followed up to ask whether he had completely ruled out such a candidacy, to which Letts said that yes, he had.
Melrose said that he doesn’t necessarily believe that statement.
“I don’t think you can believe what he says about it,” said Melrose. “He said he’s going to serve his term and you couldn’t believe that.”
Filing for tribal elections begins Friday, March 1, and continues through March 15. All 12 Tribal Council seats, as well as the principal chief and vice chief offices, are up for election. It’s bound to be a contentious race, the first chief election following the controversial impeachment of former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert. While filing has not yet begun, three candidates have already announced their plans to run for chief. Incumbent Richard Sneed will be seeking his first elected term as principal chief, running against former Councilmember Teresa McCoy and Yellowhill resident Missy Crowe.