For example, the District Court’s 30th District is comprised of the seven westernmost counties in North Carolina — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Graham, Clay and Cherokee. Six judges, all elected, preside over cases ranging from civil to criminal to juvenile matters.
Every two years, three of those judgeships are up for re-election. This year, that means Monica Leslie and Tessa Shelton Sellers, but no one filed to run against them.
The third judge, Richard K. Walker, decided not to seek re-election, leaving an open seat that’s suddenly led to a contested, competitive and much talked about race between four Republicans, one of whom will face a Democrat in November.
The 30th is geographically one of the largest districts in the state, if not the largest, but the issues between the seven counties are common — poor, isolated communities are reeling from the effects of the opioid crisis and the civil, criminal and juvenile matters that arise from it. Domestic relations, custody and child support matters are among the most contentious, difficult and heartbreaking cases that these judges hear.
It takes a special kind of person to want to preside over the never-ending parade of human misery that a District Court judge must face on a daily basis, although the reward comes when judges have the opportunity to do some good. That opportunity comes with a solid understanding of the nature of the human condition, according to Hayesville attorney Mitch Brewer.
“After 15 years of practicing law in the District Courts of the state of North Carolina from the Eastern section, Wake and surrounding counties, all the way to our seven counties in this district, I understand the people and culture of our state,” Brewer said. “I understand that they need a person on the bench serving as a judicial official that understands and pays attention and can render justice with impartiality.”
Judge Walker’s retirement opens up more than just a seat on the bench — he’s the chief judge of the District Court, meaning he’s also responsible to a great extent for administration of the 30th District.
The next chief judge of the 30th District will be chosen by the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which is also up for election in November — Democrat incumbent Cheri Beasley or Republican Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby.
Although Brewer and the other three Republicans won’t likely be tapped to fill that role, they might. Regardless, as a District Court judge, any of the four will have the opportunity to weigh in on district policy in regard to a number of criminal justice reform issues, like drug courts and veterans courts.
“I think they are a great idea,” Brewer said. “Like Rome, we have so many veterans, we’ve had ongoing wars and skirmishes for the last two decades and we still have our overhang of Vietnam veterans. The way they see the world is different after they return from conflict. We’ve got to meet these veterans where they’re coming from, but also steer them in a better direction.”
Brewer also sees society’s role in perpetuating a drug epidemic that’s treated as a criminal matter instead of a mental or physical health issue.
“People are in pain and they’re turning to certain substances to alleviate that pain, the stresses, the disconnect between how you feel and what society says you should be feeling,” he said. “Drug courts could actually get to the bottom of some of the substance use disorders. It’s super important that we have a system in place that doesn’t criminalize the use of certain substances, but actually diagnoses them correctly and gets them the help they need.”
There’s also a disconnect between some defendants who sit in jail for months or years before being convicted — or not. Prisonpolicy.org says that 75 percent of people in jail are charged with only minor crimes, and are there because they can’t afford bail. And if they can’t afford bail, they can’t afford to miss work, or a rent payment or a utility bill.
But the answer isn’t as simple as just “let them out.” It is rather a complex issue that involves consideration of public safety, due process and likelihood of absconding before trial.
“My role as judge would be to make sure that we understand who is in front of us and what their real danger is, while also keeping an eye on their constitutional rights,” Brewer said. “One of my middle school classmates came from a hard background, ended up murdering someone, got released on bail and within a few days murdered the witness. It shocked my conscience that we could allow someone out who had just murdered someone. These are the things that I’ve learned from, that I’ll take with me to the bench.”
Ultimately, candidates in this race will earn votes based on their experience and integrity, which in turn instills faith and confidence in the justice system by the people who use it — attorneys, defendants, victims, parents, grandparents, children and witnesses.
“As soon as I got out of law school and licensed in 2005, I immediately started domestic and family law and I’ve been in District Court since then on those matters. The biggest thing that’s going to differentiate how we handle our courtrooms is gonna be our life experiences,” said Brewer. “I’ll make sure that that system will be improved upon and that indeed that folks will understand that that is their courtroom and since it is theirs, it is up to everyone involved, including the judge to make sure that it works for the people.”
Like Brewer, Rich Cassady lives outside of Haywood County; Cassady said that in a district comprised of seven counties — of which Haywood is the largest and the furthest east — more representation is needed out west.
“Right now we have two District Court judges that don’t live in Haywood. If I lose this primary, the most likely result will be that five out of six judges will live in Haywood,” he said. “We will only have Tessa Sellers, living in Clay County. That’s really not representative.”
Geographical distribution isn’t the only reason Cassady is seeking the post.
“I’ve told people before, if Trump cuts your taxes, you’re going to feel it a little. If the state legislature cuts your taxes, you’re going to feel it a little. If a District Court judge takes your grandkids away from your son, you’re gonna feel it a lot,” he said.
Having the life experience to make those difficult decisions, especially in regard to custody, is important. On the topic of veterans courts, Cassady has personal experience, by way of his nine years of service in the United States Navy.
“Veteran’s court is a drug court for veterans for the most part, an they required two things — time and money,” he said. “There’s not the money right now in this district. The legislature would have to give the money for a veterans court or for a drug court.”
Conventional reasoning has advanced the theory that if we can’t have veterans and drug courts in all seven of the district’s counties, we shouldn’t have any at all; Cassady said a more pragmatic solution would be establishing combined courts, like, say, one for Graham and Swain counties.
Regardless of the implementation, Cassady says veterans are deserving of some extra attention, post-conviction.
“The veteran has demonstrated a commitment to a community larger than himself or herself. The thought process is, these people might be best candidates to get back on the right path and continue their service to their community,” he said. “I would support this decision that we’re going to take a chance on spending money on fixing these people because they’ve already demonstrated at least sometime in the past that they had a commitment that maybe others don’t have.”
On pretrial incarceration, Cassady stresses the case-by-case nature of bond conditions, but also thinks there’s work to be done to make things more fair.
“You’ve got someone that can’t make bond, they get a bond and it doesn’t matter what the bond is cause they’re homeless, they’re poor, well, that would lead someone to plead just to get out,” he said. “And I’ve seen that.”
Cassady’s also seen people sit in jail for years, only to be released and watch their cases drag on for several more years.
“I’ll give you a perfect example,” he said. “Clay County typically only has three criminal superior sessions. So if you’re indicted in February and you’re served with your indictment in March and you get a bond you can’t make, you may have to wait until the next admin session, which may not be until July or you may have to wait until the next trial session, which may not be until September.”
Cassady believes his legal experience leaves him well suited for the job. Since graduating from Ole Miss in 2001, he’s spent 18 years working both civil and criminal cases, as well as doing some appellate work.
“I’m not running to be an Appellate Court judge,” he said, “but knowing how appellate courts think or writing appellate briefs or reading case law, I’m familiar with all of that.”
That’s important, Cassady said, because District Court judges don’t have law clerks so their experience is all they really have when deciding cases.
“That judge up there is on his or her own,” he said. “So few things are appealed out west — I have never heard of a custody case being appealed out of this district — so in essence, that judge up there is the Supreme Court for you if you’re a father and you get your kids six days every month and mom gets the kid the rest of the time and you don’t like that.”
It’s experience, as well as integrity, that would govern how Cassady makes decisions if he’s elected.
“I’ve given my word that people have been able to rely on four times,” he said. “I gave my oath to the United States Navy in 1988 when I enlisted. I gave my oath to this country when I re-enlisted in 1992. I gave my oath to the state of Mississippi when I was granted a law license there, and I gave my oath to the state of North Carolina when I was granted a license here in 2006.”
Haywood County’s Jim Moore has spent a lot of time on both sides of the courtroom — prosecution and defense — and talks a lot about the public’s faith in the justice system.
“I think it’s important that our court system is well manned so that we can give the public the surety that if they come in there, they’re going to get heard and receive justice,” said Moore. “I’ve got the experience to do that.”
Moore says he’s been advocating for veterans courts for nearly a decade, including the one in Buncombe County, and would like to seem them in the 30th District as well.
“I have, in private practice, used it numerous times when I have a veteran that has gotten into trouble and needs help in the ways that they can help,” he said. “I’m the same with drug courts too. I believe that people with drug issues have special problems that need to be dealt with in special ways, and that’s what those drug courts do. They’ve been shown to be effective.”
Like the other candidates, Moore understands that the real issue with veterans and drug courts is the lack of funding.
“We’re already doing it regionally with Buncombe County, but we could expand that service even just to Macon County, so veterans don’t have to travel all the way from Murphy to Asheville,” he said. “I would be in favor of increasing it maybe not completely in every county to start with, but more courts means more people get served.”
His view on pretrial incarceration isn’t much different from anyone else’s in that it’s a public safety and due process issue that has a lot of moving parts, but it’s experience that separates Moore from the pack — he has 15 more years of experience than his next closest opponent and has been lawyering longer than one of them — Kaleb Wingate — has been alive.
“I have been in trial courts my entire legal career, 34 years. Not only that, but the balance of the cases that I’ve had both being 17 years as a prosecutor and a 17 years in private practice means that I am able to understand the positions that both sides have,” Moore said. “The most difficult of decisions to make are specifically child custody cases, and I’ve had literally hundreds of trials of those matters over the 17 years I’ve been in private practice.”
Most if not all of the candidates have noted Wingate’s relative lack of experience in the same way that most if not all have noted Moore’s political affiliation. Moore’s no stranger to running for office, nor is his name unfamiliar to the thousands who have voted for him before; what may be unfamiliar to some is the new letter next to his name — R, for Republican.
Moore told The Smoky Mountain News back in October that he made the switch not because of national trends but because of how the party’s affected his family and because he’s always held law-and-order Republican views despite his Democratic registration.
Since making the change, Moore said he’s gotten a positive reception from Republicans along the campaign trail.
“You know, it’s rather incredible — it was certainly something that I was a little leery of when I made the switch, knowing full well that I’m well-known throughout this district and I’ve never been shy. I’ve always been out front,” he said. “I have been so pleasantly surprised at the reception that the Republicans have given me. I’ve had so many individuals come up to me and say, ‘You know what? I was a Democrat too.’”
Two major Republican figures can also say that, according to Moore; Donald Trump was a Democrat through his mid-50s, as was Ronald Reagan.
“People voted for them and gave them a chance,” said Moore. “That’s all that I ask of them is to give me a chance, give me a listen and see what they think, and I think I’ve gotten a great response from just about everyone.”
The party issue, however, is certainly more of an election-year topic than it will be in the courtroom after the election, according to Moore.
“Not a single time have I ever in my 34 years of strictly nothing but trial work heard somebody be asked on the stand, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Witness, are you a Republican or a Democrat?” It’s the same for a judge. I’ve never heard an attorney say, ‘Oh, well he’s a Republican, we better get another judge and try to judge-shop.’ I haven’t heard it and I don’t think we will ever hear it in this district,” Moore said. “We’ve had a history of good judges who apply the law as they should, to the facts of the case, and then make well-balanced decisions based on that and nothing else.”
As the son of a prominent local businessman, Haywood County resident Kaleb Wingate has always been well aware of the value of service.
“These communities in Western North Carolina have given so much to me in the course of my life and I’ve always felt a calling to give back to my community,” said Wingate. “I did that as a prosecutor. I do that as an attorney in private practice and I want to do that as the next District Court judge.”
Although Wingate has less than six years of legal experience, he says the experience he does have is wide-ranging, by virtue of the thousands of cases he handled during his almost five-year career as a prosecutor.
Those experiences color his impression of the post-conviction veterans and drug courts.
“I would be a huge supporter of veterans court and drug court. I think those are great programs and we see how successful it is in Buncombe County,” he said. “If elected to be the next District Court judge, I would work hard to the extent that I can to encourage the creation of drug and veterans courts.”
His view isn’t much different than that of his three fellow competitors, except in one aspect.
“It’s important that everyone is treated the same in all seven counties. I care about people in all seven counties and every one of those counties should be treated the same,” he said. “It is a resource issue. The resources would have to be allocated so we could start that, but again, everyone in our district has to be treated the same, so you would have to have this type of court in every county.”
Wingate says that balancing the rights of defendants with a community’s desire for safety is also important, and notes a number of statutory considerations a judge could take into account during bond hearings, like the nature of the allegations against the defendant, the strength of the evidence and a person’s history of failure to appear in court.
Just as each of the other three candidates are unique in their own way, so is Wingate. He says he’s the only candidate born and raised in Western North Carolina, and that he’s a Christian conservative.
“If given this chance to be a District Court judge, I will follow the law as it’s written,” he said. “I will work hard and make decisions without regard to socioeconomic or political status.”
He also counts himself as a lifelong Republican, although he admits to changing his registration briefly to unaffiliated while working in the District Attorney’s office, so as to avoid even the appearance of bias.
“It’s very important to be educated on the candidates for this position. I encourage everyone to ask law enforcement officers, attorneys, probation officers, anyone involved in the judicial system about all the candidates,” he said. “I know the law. I have a wide range of experience. I will follow the law and I will treat everyone with respect and dignity and I will handle the authority that comes with being a District Court judge with modesty and humility, and with appropriate temperament.”
District Court judge
• Age: 42
• Residence: Hayesville
• Occupation: Private practice – probate, domestic and family law, criminal defense, some civil litigation and transactional work
• Political experience: First campaign
• Age: 52
• Residence: Macon County
• Occupation: Private practice – federal and state criminal defense, family law, DWI, personal injury
• Political experience: First campaign
• Age: 58
• Residence: Haywood County
• Occupation: Former prosecutor, private practice – criminal defense and domestic law
• Political experience: Unsuccessful campaigns for district attorney, clerk of court
• Age: 31
• Residence: Haywood County
• Occupation: Former prosecutor, private practice – DSS cases, involuntary commitments, small claims, other civil matters
• Political experience: First campaign