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The 'Belk Effect' Lingers In 2010 Judicial Elections

Natalie Bingham align=left
Natalie Bingham align=left

One month from tomorrow, Mecklenburg County voters will go to the polls and choose nine district court judges. For many years, it was common for district court judges to be on the ballot unopposed. But this year an unusual number face challengers. Many believe 2008 was the turning point. WFAE's Julie Rose looks at how Bill Belk's controversial victory that year is playing out in Mecklenburg County judicial races today. The Mecklenburg County Courthouse is almost always bustling on the lower levels. But as you make your way toward the 8th floor, a sort of hush comes over the place. But the peace and quiet is deceiving because it's in the 8th floor courtrooms where some of the most emotional and traumatic hearings take place. This is domestic court. Divorce proceedings, child custody battles, marital asset division all play out here. And increasingly, what goes on in these courtrooms is seeping over into Election Day. Lisa Pennington believes the family court system has "serious problems." Edwin Quarles says he was "truly wronged by the system." And Natalie Bingham says she's disgruntled: "Who wouldn't be disgruntled if you lost all contact with your children, and you didn't do anything wrong?" Pennington, Quarles and Bingham have all had complex and lengthy battles in Mecklenburg County family court. Each believes they were mistreated in court by judges and lawyers with ulterior motives. So far all of their appeals to the state judicial standards commission have been rejected for lack of evidence. So now they're part of a small, but vocal group of family court litigants focusing on the one way they know they can affect what happens on the bench. In next month's election, they hope to see several Mecklenburg County judges defeated. One, in particular. "We've seen an escalation of problems since Lisa Bell was placed in the chief district court judge position," says Natalie Bingham. "We're getting more and more calls and concerns. It's almost like the family court system is run as a dictatorship." Bingham created a watchdog group called North Carolina Court Watch after what she believes was unfair treatment in Judge Bell's courtroom eight years ago. Bell hasn't presided in family court since 2003. But she is the chief district court judge, which gives her some administrative power and the ability to assign judges to family court. And that's why angry litigants want her gone. Bell makes no apologies. She says judges may be elected, but it's their job to follow the law. "And that does not always mean doing what the people want," says Bell. "To attempt to unseat a judge because they made a decision you don't want is not appropriate." A few weeks ago, one litigant confronted Bell at a public forum. Bell says she's received threatening emails. And she's even given mug shots of some of the litigants with arrest records to staff at her daughter's school. Bell says judges need to be free to make decisions without facing undue criticism or personal threats. "And when people engage in that to point where judges are afraid to preside in court or have concerns about making decisions or about a particular case coming in front of them, that is where judicial independence has been eroded," says Bell. "That is the long-term damage of this conduct to our system." Bell's critics say she's exaggerating the threats. They've placed their hopes in an attorney named Twyla Hollingsworth. She's spent the last nine years working for the Department of Social Services on child custody cases. Hollingsworth's campaign literature quotes a Bible verse about judging "righteously." For this story, she wouldn't agree to an interview, but supporters like Natalie Bingham are convinced they can rely on Hollingsworth in court, "because her faith in God and her faith in doing the right thing is grounded." "It's about following the procedures that are set there for all the judges as guidelines," says Bingham. Judge Bell argues that she has a 12-year history of fairness on the bench and that unhappy family litigants are a very small fraction of the some 10,000 cases filed in Mecklenburg County Family Court each year. Still, Bell is facing her first election challenge since becoming a judge in 1998. And she believes that is directly linked to the 2008 election when Charlotte businessman Bill Belk defeated the judge who ruled against him in family court. Family Court litigant Natalie Bingham says that victory was a turning point. "It empowered us," says Bingham. "It made us feel like finally, we have a voice." Litigants have become even more active since then in recruiting people to run against judges. And their enthusiasm wasn't dampened by Belk's scandalous departure from the bench after just 11 months. The State Supreme Court ruled Belk violated judicial code by continuing to serve as a paid member of a corporate board of directors while he was a judge. Belk believes the legal community came after him, "because they look at me as the person that pulled back the curtain and has exposed what is really happening behind closed doors." And he's pleased that his 2008 victory empowered family court litigants to take an active role this year. "It's a civil rights movement almost," says Belk. "This is what America's politics is all about." And just what we don't want our judicial system to be about, others would add. There is a movement afoot to take some of the politics out of how judges are selected in North Carolina. Tuesday on Morning Edition, WFAE will take a closer look at one proposal. But that's beside the point for the four sitting judges in Mecklenburg County District Court could lose their seats in next month's election.