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Two Republicans vie for new district court seat

Two Republicans vie for new district court seat

For the first time in almost two decades, Western North Carolina is getting a new district court judge, and with no one from any other parties running the contest will be decided by the March 5 Republican Primary. 

The seat for the district — which includes Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties — was included in last year’s state budget, along with a public defender’s office, both of which should alleviate the backlog of cases, especially in the district’s far-west counties.

Although the candidates for the seat, Andy Buckner and Virginia Hornsby, are from the same party, their interviews with The Smoky Mountain News highlighted key differences in experience, politics and philosophies.   

Here’s what they had to say.

Andy Buckner

Buckner, who grew up in Western North Carolina, was a teacher and band director at Smoky Mountain High School before going to law school at the University of Kentucky.

Before coming back to Western North Carolina in 2016 — seemingly for good — he worked at larger practices in Winston- Salem and Raleigh and covered a “wide variety of subjects,” including different types of complex civil cases.

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Andy Buckner. File photo

“I spent a good bit of time in my first couple of years defending police officers on civil rights claims when they were sued,” Buckner said.

In Western North Carolina, Buckner worked at Coward, Hicks and Siler from 2005-2010 and 2016-2019, when he took a job as an assistant district attorney under District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch, who he said is now endorsing him in his judicial run. 

“It doesn’t pay as well, but from day one, I felt energized and like I was doing some good,” he said.

On June 1 of last year, District Court Judge Kristina Earwood announced that she was retiring due to an emerging health concern, leaving a vacancy that was filled by Gov. Roy Cooper. That process began with members of the district’s bar voting on three recommendations to send to the governor. The top vote-getter, Justin Greene of Swain County, was eventually appointed . Buckner came in third in that vote and said the experience gave him a good idea of how to talk to people about why he is seeking a seat on the bench and what kind of judge he may be.

“This is a little easier in that regard,” Buckner said, adding that he was still a bit uncomfortable with all the politics.

Buckner has faced some criticism, especially from his opponent, regarding his recent party change from unaffiliated to Republican. Although Buckner had voted in Democratic primaries in 2018, 2020 and 2022, he said once he realized that he’d have more success on the ballot under one party than the other, he assessed his own values and decided to join the Republican Party.

“I feel like I do have conservative values,” he said. “I’m very much a law-and-order guy, and that feeling has been amplified through my work at the DA’s office.” 

Either way, Buckner is among many Western North Carolina attorneys who believe that judicial elections shouldn’t be partisan. His concern is that the cultural issues that have pervaded every aspect of American politics may find their way to the bench and taint what is supposed to be an independent judiciary. If someone espouses political beliefs while campaigning for a judicial position, he said, it could open people who come before the court to feeling like they may not get a fair shake. 

“I think getting involved in whatever the issues of the day are is irresponsible,” he said. 

Buckner said that rather than political or judicial philosophies, he thinks the most important thing for a district court judge is to be competent and fair while maintaining decorum and dignity.  

“My experience is that with the judges that I’ve respected the most, the most important thing was getting the law right,” he said.

Virginia Hornsby

Hornsby (no relation to District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch) has lived in Macon County since 2018 and has practiced law in the region since 2004. In her 20 years practicing, she’s split her time almost evenly between family law and criminal law.  

As a senior district attorney in Madison and Yancey counties, she handled everything from juvenile prosecutions to misdemeanors to felonies, including murder.

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Virginia Hornsby. File photo

In family court, she said she has seen no shortage of divorce cases with complicated equitable distribution elements during which numerous assets must be divided between sometimes-hostile parties.  

“We have to get forensic accountants involved if one spouse may be hiding assets,” Hornsby said.  

Hornsby added that she’s done “the full menu” of domestic cases during her 10 years practicing civil law out of Buncombe County.  

“I’ve also done those cases on an emergency basis for Pisgah Legal Services when I was a volunteer attorney for them,” she said.  

After moving to Macon County in 2018, Hornsby had her name put on the court-appointed list to represent indigent criminal defendants who can’t afford their own counsel. She said that while it’s rewarding work, it’s difficult, given the nature of the system. While a public defender office is coming to the district soon, for now, there are very few people on the court appointed list, and pay is only $65 an hour, barely enough to break even for many attorneys. Hornsby said she has about 300 pending cases. 

Hornsby said she’s long wanted to run for a district court seat and tailored her career to that ambition. Hornsby especially touted her legal background and the diversity of cases she’s handled. She specifically mentioned her experience in family law, which she said makes up about 60% of “what judges do.”   

“District Court is the originating court for custody cases, juvenile cases; people are going through a divorce and distribution of their assets, equitable distribution, alimony, DSS cases,” she said.

Along with the diverse array of cases she’s heard, Hornsby talked about her experience in all counties that make up the 43rd Judicial District, working with the different clerks and court staff she’ll encounter as a judge. She said that would make her learning curve a bit gentler. 

“Every court is different,” she said. “Every clerk likes to do things a different way, every judge has a different style, so it’s a good thing to go to each court and feel out what’s going on.” 

While Buckner didn’t weigh in as much on his judicial philosophy or politics, Hornsby voiced strong opinions on both.

On politics and partisan judicial elections, Hornsby said she has nothing to hide and embraces the role of parties in judicial elections because it gives voters more information with which to make an informed decision. She has also discussed Buckner’s recent shift to the Republican party at campaign events as a means to draw a contrast.   

When it comes to judicial philosophy, Hornsby sounded a lot like Antonin Scalia, the late United States Supreme Court Justice, who pops into most people’s minds when they hear the word “originalism,” the judicial philosophy associated with the idea that the text of a law should be construed as it was written and intended to be interpreted at the time it was passed.  

“If you read the law, you know that you don’t ever make decisions without knowing the law and making some kind of judgment,” she said. 

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