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District Court judge one step closer to moving up to Superior Court

After winnin the vote, Tessa Sellers is likely to move up from her district court seat to superior court. Kyle Perrotti photo After winnin the vote, Tessa Sellers is likely to move up from her district court seat to superior court. Kyle Perrotti photo

Attorneys in Western North Carolina now know who will likely hold the farthest west superior court seat. 

In a special vote held the morning of Feb. 24 in Clay County, current District Court Judge Tessa Sellers tallied a greater percentage of a weighted vote over Assistant District Attorney John Hindsman in a vote in Clay County and will now appear on the November General Election ballot for the superior court seat for district 43A, made up of Macon, Swain, Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties.

Sellers said the prospect of leaving her District Court seat to move up to superior court is bittersweet.

“I really have enjoyed being a district court judge, and there would be aspects of that court and the people in that court system that I would miss,” she told The Smoky Mountain News. “But I’m really thrilled with the opportunity to expand on my judicial career and to be able to serve in a role where I can do new things within the system.” 

On Dec. 7 of last year, then-Superior Court Judge William Coward announced his retirement, and on Feb. 1, he made it official, creating a vacancy on the bench in a position vital to tackling the backlog of cases in the state’s far-west counties. The vacancy kicked off a process for the GOP to nominate someone to appear on the November General Election ballot as a Republican for that seat. That process was laid out in a Jan. 13 NCGOP memo that the party provided to SMN and culminated in the Feb. 24 vote.  

The voters were members of the executive committees from each of the five counties that make up the judicial district; for each county, that was the chair, vice chair, secretary and treasurer, as well as five at-large members selected during the counties’ conventions held last year. Each county’s total was weighted according to its number of registered Republican voters.

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The numbers for the weighted vote were pulled when the memo was issued and were as follows: Macon had the most at 35.31%, then Cherokee with 33.71%, Clay with 13.52%, Swain with 8.77% and Graham with 8.69%.

A Facebook post from the Cherokee County GOP recalled some of the specifics. It noted that 35 of the 45 eligible voters were present, including all nine from its own county. According to that post, each candidate was allowed five minutes to speak, and then paper ballots were distributed and filled out anonymously. With the weighted vote factored, Sellers finished with 66.74% and Hindsman received 33.26%.

“Both candidates agreed with the vote count and weighting calculations,” the post reads.

The results were officially certified, and on Monday were sent to NCBOE to kick off the process to put Sellers on the ballot, as well as to Gov. Roy Cooper with NCGOP hopes that he’ll appoint her in the near future. 

“The meeting was adjourned, and we made a point of congratulating both candidates on good campaigns,” the post reads.

Although the NCGOP dictated how the process would play out, it was NC-11 GOP Chair Michele Woodhouse who executed it. She said the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and that the process was smooth and fair.

“Saturday’s process set the standard for the state of North Carolina,” she said. “The members of the five western counties’ Republican parties were beyond reproach in the work they did.”

“It went off without a hitch because of everyone’s true commitment to this process,” she added.

Although Democrats will have the opportunity to put someone on the ballot, the initial indication is that they will let Sellers run unopposed in November. In the meantime, the ball is now in Gov. Cooper’s court as it is up to him to appoint someone to fill the vacancy until Sellers or whoever is elected is sworn in.

Woodhouse said she hopes Cooper appoints Sellers as soon as possible.

“We are very hopeful that Gov. Roy Cooper will hear the voice of the five far-west counties and take immediate action to fill Judge Coward’s vacancy,” she said. “We gave him an outstanding, qualified candidate who was voted on with an overwhelming majority.”

Should Sellers gain Cooper’s appointment, that will create a vacancy in district court. When that happens, it will initiate a similar process to place a Republican for that seat on the ballot. Like with superior court, Democrats will also have a chance to follow procedures outlined in their plan of organization to determine who may appear on the ballot for district court. Because the district court district also includes Haywood and Jackson Counties, which are typically slightly less solidly red, a candidate may emerge from the party. Sources from neither party would indicate who they thought might win that nomination.

Like with the superior court seat, while the winner of the November General election will earn a full term on the bench, Cooper will have the opportunity to appoint a district court judge who could serve until then.

Woodhouse said she and the NCGOP are ready to move forward to put someone on the ballot to fill a vacancy Sellers may leave when she goes to superior court, should that need arise.

“The first domino would be Gov. Cooper appointing Tessa to superior court,” Woodhouse said. “Then we can address that vacancy.”

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