With Superior Court seat filled, steps taken to address District Court vacancy

Kristy Parton took a huge step forward toward becoming a District Court Judge. Donated photo Kristy Parton took a huge step forward toward becoming a District Court Judge. Donated photo

There have been a lot of questions regarding the future of Western North Carolina’s judges over the last year or so, but the final piece may have just fallen into place. 

Last Wednesday, May 1, Tessa Sellers, then a District Court Judge, was sworn in as a Superior Court judge, which opened up a vacancy for her former seat on the bench. Last Saturday, the Republican Party held a vote consisting of members of the executive committees of the seven counties comprising the judicial district. That vote came down to two candidates, Swain County’s Kristy Parton and Assistant District Attorney Andy Buckner. Parton ultimately won.

While the vote happened in rapid succession following the vacancy, it had been a long time coming. On Dec. 7 of last year, then-Superior Court Judge William Coward announced his retirement, and on Feb. 1, he made it official, creating an opening on the bench in a position vital to tackling the backlog of cases in the state’s far-west counties. The Superior Court 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 The Smoky Mountain News and culminated in the Feb. 24 vote.   

Sellers won that vote, and last month, Gov. Roy Cooper appointed her to that seat.

Saturday, after Sellers’ swearing in, the vote was held to see what Republican would appear on the ballot. Parton won, although the final tally wasn’t provided to SMN by the GOP.

“I’m thankful,” Parton said. “I’m very appreciative of the support. I am excited about the possibilities.”

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A native of Swain County, Parton said she put her name in for a gubernatorial appointment to a District Court seat 10 years ago, but then Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, ended up appointing Sellers to that seat. Parton said she thought Sellers was ultimately the right choice and that she has gained more experience over this last decade, in particular with family law matters, which end up being some of the most important cases District Court judges hear.

For NC-11 GOP Chair Michele Woodhouse, the vote to put Parton on the ballot was déjà vu. Woodhouse executed the process for the Superior Court vote to replace Coward, and this vote was not much different. For Superior Court, the 45 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 county conventions held last year. Each county’s total was weighted according to its number of registered Republican voters. This go-round, the vote included, in addition to the five far-west counties, Haywood and Jackson.

Following the vote to confirm Sellers, Woodhouse said she was happy with how smooth that process went. She said this most recent one was the same way. It began with Macon County attorney Orville Coward, uncle of former judge Bill Coward, nominating Buckner, and Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain) nominating Parton. The candidates spoke, and then the vote was held. Woodhouse said the whole thing took no more than an hour.

“The process went smooth,” she said. “We followed very much the same format as last time, and like last time, prior to the meeting, each candidate hosted a Zoom meeting where they could talk to the executive committees.” 

“Both Andy Buckner and Kristy Parton presented themselves incredibly well,” she added.

Woodhouse recalled that the NCGOP called for the vote to fill the Superior Court seat in hopes that it would spur Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to make a quick appointment. Woodhouse noted in a previous SMN story that she was happy with how quickly that happened, and she said last weekend that she hopes to see quick action again. However, in this case, the appointment process is a bit different. Members of the bar from the seven counties that comprise the district will vote to offer up three candidates to Cooper for appointment.

This process played out recently to fill a vacancy created by the surprise retirement of Judge Kristina Earwood, who left the bench to address an emerging health concern. In that case, the top vote-getter was Democrat Justin Greene, of Swain County, with Vicki Teem, of Graham County, finishing second, and Buckner taking third.

From there, the three nominees met with Cooper for in-person interviews. Greene gave some insight into how his interview went.

“The impression I got from speaking with the governor is that he was someone who was thoughtful in his decision making,” Greene said. “You can tell he really cares about doing what’s best for the state in whatever way.”

Cooper announced Greene’s appointment a couple of months later, and Greene was sworn in in November of last year. The bar making up the seven-county district has not yet voted for its recommendations.

“We have our name that will be submitted to the NCGOP and the state board of elections,” Woodhouse said, referring to Parton.

Woodhouse is hopeful that the bar will provide firm support for Parton’s nomination, as well.

“In conversations with some folks that are part of the bar who were there (for Saturday’s vote), they’re going to urge that vote to be held quickly and put forward Kristy’s name,” she said.

Parton, should she gain the appointment and win the November election, won’t be the only new judge in Western North Carolina. Last year’s state budget provided funding for a new District Court judge, the first in the judicial district in almost two decades.

The race for the new District Court seat came down to two Republicans, Virginia Hornsby and Assistant District Attorney Andy Buckner. Because there were no Democrats running, their primary decided who would take the new seat on the bench, with Hornsby pulling 52.77% of the vote to come away with the victory. Hornsby will be sworn in at the beginning of next year.

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