Cooper makes appointment to fill WNC judicial vacancy

Tessa Sellers gained Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointment to Superior Court after winning a vote to appear on the ballot in November. File photo Tessa Sellers gained Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointment to Superior Court after winning a vote to appear on the ballot in November. File photo

Gov. Roy Cooper has appointed a new Superior Court judge in Western North Carolina. 

The announcement was made late last week that current District Court judge Tessa Sellers will soon assume her new role on the Superior Court bench. She will tentatively be sworn in May 1.

The series of events that ultimately led to Sellers’ appointment was kicked off when Superior Court Judge William Coward retired earlier this year, creating the vacancy on the bench in a district with a significant backlog of cases.

On. Feb. 24, Sellers won a special vote held in Clay County over Assistant District Attorney and fellow Republican John Hindsman 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.

The process for that vote was explained in a Jan. 13 NCGOP memo that the party provided to the Smoky Mountain News.. The voters were the nine members of the party’s executive committees in the five counties that comprise the district. Each county’s total was weighted according to its number of registered Republican voters. 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%.

Following that vote, Sellers said the prospect of leaving her District Court seat to move up to Superior Court is bittersweet.

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“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.” 

Sellers won with a weighted total of 66.7 percent of the vote, and right away NC-11 GOP Chair Michele Woodhouse called for Cooper to appoint Sellers to fill the vital vacancy. In an interview on April 8 following the appointment, Woodhouse expressed gratitude for his swift action.

“We are pleased that Gov. Cooper took the recommendation that we put forth with Tessa and had Judge Coward’s seat appointed quickly. We’re thankful for that. It proved that what the Republican parties in the five far west counties did was the right thing for the five far-west counties,” Woodhouse said.

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Gov. Roy Cooper

Now that Sellers has gained Cooper’s appointment, that will soon create a vacancy in District Court. When that happens, it will initiate a similar process to place a Republican on the ballot for that seat. 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, but it’s unclear whether anyone from that party is even interested. Sources from neither party would indicate on the record who they thought might be interested.

Woodhouse said the party can’t act until the seat is officially vacated around the May 1 swearing in date. Once that happens, the party has one week to put forward a name for the November ballot. She said the executive committees of the seven counties’ Republican Parties will meet and vote on May 4.

“Gov. Cooper and the Board of Elections will have a name in hand by lunchtime on the fourth of May,” Woodhouse said. “We’re hoping that then Gov. Cooper will make a quick appointment.”

Like with the Superior Court seat, while the winner of the November General Election will earn a full term on the bench to begin Jan. 1, Cooper will have the opportunity to appoint a district court judge who could serve until then. If Democrats show no interest in putting forward a candidate of their own, it seems likely Cooper — a Democrat — may appoint whomever the Republicans select.

To fill the vacancy that opened up less than a year ago in District Court when Kristina Earwood retired suddenly due to an emerging health concern, members of the bar in the seven counties voted to provide Cooper with three recommendations for her successor. The top vote-getter, Justin Greene, was appointed by Cooper and sworn in last November.

Western North Carolina will also get another new District Court judge Jan. 1 when Virginia Hornsy, a Macon County Republican, will be sworn in after beating Andy Buckner in the Republican primary.

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