Bill addresses judicial efficiency in western counties

A House bill proposed by Western North Carolina reps. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, and Mark Pless, R-Haywood, includes significant changes to a judicial district that is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Who will preside over District Court? Greene, Wingate run for judgeship

Kaleb Wingate and Justin Greene both earned their law degrees at North Carolina Central University in Durham, but they have different perspectives when it comes to the current criminal justice system and how they plan to serve Western North Carolina if elected to serve as a district judge.

Judicial race heats up

When most people think about exciting election action, they don’t often think about judgeships. 

Judicial races are not usually contested, they’re not usually competitive and so they’re not usually talked about much, for all of those reasons. 

Prominent local Democrat switches parties

When Jim Moore ran for Clerk of the Superior Court back in 2018 he did so as a Democrat, but now that he’s running for a District Court judgeship, he’ll do so as a Republican. 

Two Republicans vie for district judge seat

One of 43 spread across the state, North Carolina’s 30th Judicial District covers Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and is where many people have their first interaction with the court system. 

WNC attorneys to vet district court judge nominees

Six attorneys vying for a vacant district court judge seat in the region will try to win the endorsement of the legal community this week, which could help their chances of landing the coveted spot on the bench.

Historic judge’s race puts three newcomers on bench

A monumental judge’s election to fill three 30th District Court seats in Western North Carolina has ended after a clean, tightly-contested election.

When the dust settled three new judges were seated — Donna Forga, Kristina Earwood and Roy Wijewickrama.

Forga’s win could have been the most suprising as she unseated Judge Danya Ledford Vanhook, who was appointed a little more than a year ago to replace the retiring Marlene Hyatt. At forums during the campaign Forga spoke of the lessons learned as a single mom working her way through college and law school and the influence of the judge’s she has worked with.

“I’m so looking forward to serving the people of this district,” Forga said after her win. “And I also want to say how impressed I was with the quality of the judicial candidates. It makes me proud to be one of them.”

“Honestly, this is my dream, what I’ve been working for. Just incredible,” said Forga.

With voter turnout very high, the closest race of the three was between David Sutton and Kristina Earwood. Earwood, a Sylva attorney, managed to narrowly beat out Sutton by less than 2,000 votes.

At a forum in October, Earwood talked about how important it was to treat everyone equally in the courtroom.

“It’s very important to treat those people with respect. It’s 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,” Earwood said.

In the third race, Waynesville attorney Roy Wijewickrama bested fellow Waynesville attorney Steve Ellis.

In forums throughout the judge’s race, all the candidates spoke of how difficult it would be to replace the demeanor and courtroom presence of Hyatt and retiring judges Danny Davis and Steve Bryant. Davis and Bryant had a combined 50 years experience on the bench.

District Court judge races are non-partisan, which means the candidates are not affiliated with any political party.

 

District Court Judge (Vanhook seat)

Donna Forga    30,282

Danya Ledford Wanhook    22,364

 

District Court Judge (Bryant seat)

Kristina Earwood    27,032

David Sutton    25,159

 

District Court Judge (Davis seat)

Roy Wijewickrama    27,904

Stephen G. Ellis    23,864

Judge candidates to take stage in Jackson, Haywood next week

Candidates for District Court judge will espouse their vision for the bench at election forums held next week in Haywood and Jackson County.

“Judges make decisions every day that directly influence people’s lives, yet many voters don’t know where judicial candidates stand on the most important issues of the day,” said Chris Cooper, WCU associate professor of political science and public affairs, and director of the Public Policy Institute. “We want to help voters learn what they need to know about the people who want to represent them in the judiciary.”

Candidates in other local races will be given two-minutes at the mic prior to the judge hopefuls taking the stage. The forums will be sponsored by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News. The two forums are:

• 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Western Carolina University Multipurpose Room of A.K. Hinds University Center.

• 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, at Haywood Community College auditorium.

A reception will be held from 6:30 to 7 p.m. where voters can talk informally with the candidates for judge and other local offices. The formal portion of the forum will begin at 7 p.m. Local candidates who attend — county commissioner, school board, sheriff, and state representative or senate candidates — will get two minutes each to introduce themselves and discuss their platforms.

Todd Collins, WCU assistant professor of political science and public affairs, will serve as moderator of the forum with the judicial candidates. Questions will be developed prior to the forum, but audience participation will be allowed as time permits.

For information, contact the Public Policy Institute at 828.227.2086 or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Judge’s race to have lasting impact, say attorneys

Not a day goes by that Judge Monica Leslie doesn’t realize the gravity of her decisions.

Leslie is one of six District Court judges in the seven western counties. They decide how to split property and wealth when a couple gets divorced. They decide whether a restraining order is warranted in a domestic violence claim. They make heart-wrenching decisions in custody battles. And perhaps most difficult, decide whether a parent with a history of neglect is ready to get their children back.

“We deal with families in crisis,” Leslie said.

Gavin Brown, a Waynesville attorney, said that in some ways who serves as judge is more important than the president.

“A District Court judge affects the citizens directly in my community and on a daily basis. They take care of domestic disputes, they take care of foreclosures, they take care of car wrecks and traffic violations,” Brown said. “They are so critical in everyday life — in what they say and do and how they do it.”

There’s even more at stake in this year’s judge race than normal, however. Three long-time judges have retired in the past two years — creating a void of experience. Turnover is rare on the bench, let alone this level of turnover all at one time.

“Once you win a position as a judge, barring a health problem or some personal issue, you don’t lose that job,” said Brown.

Out of six District Court judges for the region, half are in flux. The watershed election year attracted a staggering 10 judge candidates in the May primary. The list has now been narrowed to six going into the November race. Two candidates are vying for each seat, with each still considered a toss-up just a month away from Election Day.

Two of the three seats will fill vacancies left by Judges Danny Davis and Steve Bryant — who retired this summer with a combined 50 years of experience on the bench.

“Whoever replaces them will have big shoes to fill and will need to be able to handle the load almost immediately,” said Judge Richie Holt, now the senior District Court judge with 17 years on the bench. “My number one job in the next year is to get everybody going on the right direction and handling the cases adequately and appropriately.”

That’s not to say that different styles of running a courtroom can’t be equally effective, he said.

“The folks can use their own styles and their own personality, but it will take them a while to figure out what type of things to do or say to keep it moving,” Holt said.

The legal community will certainly tread cautiously until they get used to the new lay of the land — and the tendencies that the new judges manifest.

“From a lawyer’s point of view, lawyers like consistency. We like to be able to predict under certain sets of facts what the likely outcome might be so we can advise our clients accordingly,” said Don Patten, a Haywood County attorney.

That’s going to be tough when 50 percent of the judiciary will essentially be new at the job.

“I would guess the general public, I don’t think they have any idea the gravity of our situation to a certain extent,” said David Moore, a Sylva attorney.

That said, experience isn’t everything.

“Temperament, knowledge, skill, intelligence — those are all factors that are fairly critical,” Moore added.

Not to mention time management. There’s hundreds of cases on the line across the seven-county district every month.

“You sure want someone who knows what they are doing and can handle it fairly, judiciously and expediently,” said Patten.

The election for District Court judges is non-partisan. In other words, candidates on the ballot won’t be labeled as Democrats or Republicans. Partisan views aren’t as relevant as personality traits when it comes to electing judges.

To help voters familiarize themselves with the candidates, Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News are putting on two forums next week.

“This particular judicial race is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for this region,” said Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod. “Three District Court judge seats being decided in one election is very unusual, and so we hope voters will take the opportunity to familiarize themselves with who is running and their backgrounds.”

On the bright side, after this hump the bench will most likely enjoy another 20 to 30 years of long-term stability, Brown pointed out.

See also: Judge candidates to take stage in Jackson, Haywood next week

 

Who’s running for district court judge

Seat 1

• Danya Vanhook, a sitting judge based in Haywood County who’s been on the job a little over a year

• Donna Forga, Waynesville attorney in solo practice

Seat 2

• Kris Earwood, Sylva attorney with solo practice (formerly of firm Lay and Earwood)

• David Sutton, Waynesville attorney with Kirkpatrick law firm

Seat 3

• Steve Ellis, Waynesville attorney in solo practice (formerly with the firm Brown, Ward and Haynes)

• Roy Wijewickrama, Waynesville attorney serving as prosecutor in Cherokee

Unaffiliated candidates denied access to party voters

With more unaffiliated candidates running for office this year, political party leaders are torn over whether to open their doors to those who won’t declare party affiliation as either  Democrat or Republican.

In Jackson County, three unaffiliated candidates will be on the ballot this fall: one for sheriff, one for county commissioner chairman and one for District Court judge. The Jackson County Democratic Party has barred them from attending candidate meet-and-greets hosted by the party.

“It is not right for the Democratic Party to support a Republican or unaffiliated candidate when there is a Democratic candidate on the ballot,” said Kirk Stephens, chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “The role of the party organization is to support and elect Democratic candidates, so why would we stray from that?”

Kris Earwood, a candidate running for District Court judge, said she was disappointed to be barred from the meet-and-greet. Judge races are nonpartisan — meaning that even though candidates might subscribe to one party or the other when it comes to their voter registration, party affiliation isn’t listed on the ballot as it is with most races.

Stephens said some of the other candidates running for judge have been active in the party, and that it would be unfair to give those with no affiliation or involvement in the party equal access to the Democratic voter base.

Stephens said opening the doors to other candidates would actually violate the party’s national bylaws, which stipulate that party leaders can be removed for supporting a candidate of another political party.

But that hasn’t stopped party leaders in other counties. Earwood has attended both Democratic and Republican party events in other places.

“Most of them have looked at independents not as an opposing party,” Earwood said. “I have been allowed to come to things for the simple reason that both parties are realizing they are going to have to deal with the independents.”

Earwood’s opponent for the seat, David Sutton, is a registered Democrat but he has been allowed to attend meet-and-greets hosted by Republican Party in Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties — since the race is technically nonpartisan. He was barred from attending the annual convention of the Republican Party in Swain and Macon, however.

As a Democrat, Sutton has actively tapped the organized party structure to connect with voters.

“It is important to the extent that it makes networking easier,” Sutton said. “It has definitely been helpful.”

Earwood said that she was warned by politicos that her lack of party affiliation would hurt her in the race, especially when it came to campaigning.

“I was told that an independent could not win in Western North Carolina,” Earwood said. “Across the board, people told me I needed to change my party affiliation, and I felt like that was disingenuous.”

Earwood said she doesn’t think the average voter cares. In fact, the number of voters registered as unaffiliated is growing by leaps and bounds, so it may even be an asset.

“It has upset me at times when I’ve been treated ungraciously because of my independent status. But for a judicial race it should be based on the person and their career rather than what their party affiliation is,” Earwood said.

Earwood said party affiliation doesn’t factor into the job of District Court judge — witnessed by the state designating judge races as nonpartisan.

“We don’t do any policy,” Earwood said.

But Stephens said it does matter.

“Being a Democrat is not a check box on paper. It is a lifestyle. It is a philosophical way of approaching and viewing your surroundings and your community,” Stephens said. “It is important for us as a party that we have judges that represent our values.”

While party affiliation likely doesn’t affect a judge’s outlook on a speeding ticket, District Court judges also decide critical family issues such as child custody and parental rights where philosophy matters, he said.

Sutton agrees with Earwood that your party isn’t important as a District Court judge. But that doesn’t mean voters don’t care.

“People definitely want to know,” Sutton said.

Without a party label, voters are left guessing, Stephens said.

“It doesn’t make it impossible to know what that person believes, but it does make it more difficult,” Stephens said. “Democrats like to say we have a big tent and we try to be inclusive. There are a lot of different kinds of people involved in the Democrat Party but the thing we have in common is we are all Democrats. There has to be a boundary somewhere.”

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