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Choosing Judges Challenges Voters

District Court judges in Mecklenburg County are elected by popular vote every four years, but they often run unopposed. Not so this year. Four sitting judges face challengers. WFAE's Julie Rose reports on a forum held last night for judicial candidates. The majority of people who will vote next month have never seen the inside of a courtroom except on TV. Many simply skip the judicial races on the ballot, or pick the name that sounds most familiar. But even when voters do try to learn about the judicial candidates before Election Day, it can be frustrating. "It's very hard to find out information," says Charlotte voter Margaret Thompson. "You need almost to be on the inside." That's why Thompson joined a crowd of about 75 at a forum Thursday night sponsored by Justice Initiatives. Unfortunately, by the end of the night Thompson said she still didn't know enough to make a decision in the four contested judicial races. The moderator asked each candidate why he or she is the best choice for judge. Virtually every response was a version of "I have the most/best experience to do the job." That's not a very helpful argument for voters looking to differentiate between candidates. But the hard thing about running for judge is that experience is really all the candidates can talk about. Unlike a politician who can promise to always vote for or against a certain issue, judges have to stay neutral. They also can't talk about specific cases they've heard or rulings they've made. At last night's forum, even the topics candidates could take a position on proved far from enlightening. What's the biggest challenge the court faces? "Not enough resources," was the uniform response. How would you handle the increasing anger being expressed by litigants? "I'll keep my cool and stay the course," said both the sitting judges and the candidates trying to beat them. Perhaps the most helpful exchanges of the night came when the candidates were invited to ask their opponents a question. Judge Tyyawdi Hands wanted to know what made assistant district attorney Sean Smith decide to run against her. Hands was appointed to fill an open seat last year. Smith felt she should have to face a vote of the people. "I believe in the democracy of the way we have things set up here in North Carolina and I think every race should be challenged," said Sean Smith. "I respectfully disagree," Hands rebutted. "There used to be a day when you had judges that were serving you honorably and diligently, you didn't get challenged just for the sake of being challenged. This judge has served you honorably and diligently." Attorney Matt Osman was equally pointed in his question to Judge Tim Smith. "Judge Smith, you have twice been reprimanded by your peers on the judicial standards commission for violating the code of judicial conduct during your first term in office," noted Osman. "Why should the people of Mecklenburg County give you a second chance given those indiscretions?" "Well, I've learned a lot in the past four years," said Judge Tim Smith, without flinching. "First of all I've learned that as a judge doesn't really apply, particularly when you're in the courthouse. And I have learned to control my tongue." Judge Smith admitted his outburst and attempts to intervene in court cases involving his family were wrong. But he also added the judicial standards commission chose to let him continue serving with only a reprimand, which is the commission's least serious form of censure. Then it was Tim Smith's turn to try and highlight his opponent's weakness. "Mr. Osman, you practice in Union County," began Judge Smith. "You have almost no experience whatsoever in Mecklenburg County. Can you name ten diversionary programs, treatment programs or employment programs that are available to litigants in Mecklenburg County?" "No," replied Osman. "I'll happy admit that. I cannot name ten separate programs. I can talk about Impact and any number of other diversionary programs. Judge Smith is correct, I do practice in Union County, but I'm from Charlotte. I live in Charlotte. My heart is in Charlotte." Also at the forum was Judge Jena Culler who was appointed to the bench in 2008. Her opponent is Mecklenburg Assistant Public Defender Donald Cureton. Mecklenburg County voters are also facing a choice for Superior Court. District Court Judges Bill Constangy and Hugh Lewis are hoping to move up to Superior Court. Judge Lane Williamson is hoping to keep the Superior Court seat he was appointed to earlier this year. Former Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Nancy Norelli is also on the ballot, but is not campaigning and has endorsed Williamson. The two judges who get the most votes in this four-way race will take seats on the Superior Court. The most high profile judicial race this year belongs to Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell. She's being challenged by a Mecklenburg County child welfare attorney named Twyla Hollingsworth. A group of angry family court litigants encouraged Hollingsworth to enter the race. Thursday night, Judge Bell was recovering from an appendectomy and sent her colleague Judge Lou Trosch to the forum. Trosch spared no punches in responding to Hollingsworth's tricky question. "What makes me more qualified than Lisa Bell to be a district court judge?" asked Hollingsworth. After a moment's pause, Trosch replied, "Honestly, I can't think of one thing that makes you more qualified than Judge Lisa Bell to be a district court judge. I like you. I respect you. I for the life of me can't figure out why you decided to run against Lisa Bell. She's done an excellent job. I can't figure it out." Earlier in the forum, Hollingsworth explained why she's running. "Number one, there is a lack of respect for the judiciary and there's a lack of respect within the court system," said Hollingsworth. "I'm running - I chose that seat - because change starts at the top. That is the one thing that I have learned." What the audience learned at last night's forum was less obvious. Margaret Thompson said she did get a sense of the candidate's "personalities and how they conduct themselves, so that helped." Before she makes up her mind, though, Thompson says she'll try to find some friends who might know the candidates and ask what they think . . . maybe a lawyer who's worked with them or appeared before them in court. Probably not a bad idea in a race where voters have so little to go on.