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Albright and Bray vie for judgeship

by Jordan Green

When Judge Douglas Albright opted for an early retirement after 31 years on the bench in the fall of 2005, Gov. Mike Easley quickly appointed a successor with a familiar name for the Guilford County superior court judgeship.

With a reputation as Guilford’s hard-charging district attorney, Stuart Albright was already well known as the top prosecutor in the county since his appointment in 2001 and subsequent election the next year. A 1995 graduate of Wake Forest University School of Law who spent five years in private practice before going into public service, Stuart Albright is the son of Douglas Albright.

“The biggest thing I’ve had to get used to is to learn to be a referee,” Stuart Albright said. “Having held court in eight counties and presided over more criminal and civil trials than I can remember, I am developing my sea legs as a judge.”

Now, after surviving his May primary contest in a race that has been whittled down to two candidates, Albright faces Susan Bray, who is currently seated as a Guilford County district court judge, in the Nov. 7 election. The position Albright hopes to retain and Bray hopes to snatch comes up for reelection every eight years. Circuit-riding judges on the superior court bench rotate among 46 districts every six months and preside over jury trials, handling felony criminal cases, civil cases involving more than $10,000, and appeals to district court misdemeanor decisions.

“There is certainly a lot of deference given to a sitting superior court judge, whether it’s from attorneys or court personnel,” the 45-year-old Bray said of Albright. “His father’s name is well known. His father has made a lot of important friends, like those five former supreme court chief justices. I’ve met some of those people, but I don’t have a connection like that to know those people.”

Albright has received the endorsement of James G. Exum, Henry E. Frye, Rhoda B. Billings, Burley B. Mitchell Jr. and I. Beverly Lake, all former chief justices of the state’s highest court.

“It came as a surprise,” Albright said. “Quite frankly, I was incredibly happy.”

In addition to the superior court contest between Albright and Bray, Guilford County voters will have the opportunity to cast their ballots in two district court races. In one, sitting Judge Wendy M. Enochs is running unopposed. In another, Judge Tom Jarrell of High Point is being challenged by Greensboro’s Susan O’Hale.

Whether Albright has benefited from incumbency, his father’s name or his own reputation as a sitting judge in the past nine months, Greensboro’s legal community has rallied to his cause with public support and copious campaign contributions. About one-fifth of Albright’s donations in 2006 have come from lawyers in private practice, including partners at Adams Kleemeier and Forman Rossabi Black, two law firms where the judge once worked. Other donations have come from public defenders, a district attorney’s office investigator and a US attorney.

After spending $16,747 in the first half of 2006, Albright was left with $27,621 to spend on his campaign, according to a campaign finance report filed on July 10. In comparison, the candidate spent only $16,747 in the first six months of the year. Much of Albright’s spending to date has gone toward fundraising, including payments for catering and printed invitations to events such as a pig-pickin’. Among his more strategic campaign investments were a $123 payment to New York-based Directory Program for the Grimsley High School alumni directory and a $2,000 payment to the Oak Ridge Youth Association for sponsorship rights for the Colt’s Dugout. The Colts are the mascot of Oak Ridge Elementary.

In comparison to her high-profile opponent, Bray’s fundraising efforts have been more modest. Her most recent campaign finance report indicates she raised only $6,308 in the first six months of 2006. Similar to Albright, much of Bray’s financing has come from lawyers and others associated with the courts. It’s an arrangement that causes her some discomfort, but Bray said she decided that taking money from lawyers was the only way she could realistically compete.

“I probably have not approached that in the same way that Stuart Albright has,” she said. “I sent out a general letter to most members of the state bar in Guilford County introducing myself. In that letter I indicated if anyone wants to contribute money I’d be glad to accept that, although I’m not going to rule any differently. I didn’t set up any fundraiser. I personally feel very uncomfortable with asking, say, a law enforcement officer who might have to testify before me, ‘Could I put a campaign sign in your yard?'”

Bray and Albright also differ in experience.

Bray’s campaign literature touts her tenure on the bench with the slogan “ten years elected and respected.” All that time has been spent at the district court level, where judges rather than juries rule on cases ranging from misdemeanor drug offenses, communicating threats, domestic violence, driving while intoxicated and speeding to more weighty matters such as whether parents should lose custody of a child, whether a pregnant teenager can proceed with an abortion without notifying a parent or whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult.

“I think I’m a very fair judge, and I think most people would tell you that,” Bray said. “I’m not much for lecturing people. I tend to just rule in the case. I always try to be clear about why I’ve ruled a particular way.”

Bray said she makes an effort to communicate with defendants in plain language instead of legal technicalities.

“I’m happy as long as they’re engaging me, even if it’s just two words,” she said. “I want to find out, are they alert? Can they speak in a complete sentence? Are they making sense? We do have a lot of people who come to court who have mental health issues. If I pick up on that, I might ask, ‘Do you have a case manager?’ Or, ‘Do you have some type of counseling?'”

In contrast, Albright had no judicial experience before he was appointed to superior court judge in December 2005. In a recent interview he returned repeatedly to his experience as a district attorney, expressing particular pride that Guilford County sent more people to jail for breaking and entering and for robbery in 2005 than any other county in the state, along with winning convictions against illegal massage parlor operators that were secretly engaging in prostitution services.

“I’m proud that we used not only the criminal laws but the civil laws to do that,” Albright said. “The civil laws had more teeth than criminal laws and we were able to shut them down. For twenty years the Greensboro Police Department had gone into various massage parlors and they uncovered prostitution. If they were prostitutes they were pretty transient. They might show up in court or they might end up in another city. The criminal aspect was a misdemeanor and it was just the cost of doing business.

“The unique thing about what we did,” the former district attorney continued, “part of it’s luck and part of it’s hard work – is we used the civil nuisance and abatement laws. We got $185,000 in cash and returned it to the taxpayers.”

The breadth of his prosecutorial experience is precisely what makes him more qualified for the judgeship, Albright said.

“Of the candidates up for following in my dad’s footsteps, I was the only person for ten years that had been in both criminal and civil superior court,” he said.

Bray has also worked the prosecutorial side of the fence. She served as an assistant district attorney in Guilford County from 1989, and her campaign literature states that she tried 50 trials in superior court. In one of them she took credit for winning a second-degree murder conviction for a repeat drunk driver who killed a college student and single mother in a traffic accident.

Bray is a registered Republican; Albright a Democrat. Judicial races in North Carolina are non-partisan, and unlike the statewide judicial races in which candidates have staked ideologically definitive positions, party affiliation is likely to be a poor guide in the contest between Bray and Albright.

“If you look at Judge Albright’s website it’s clear to me that he’s emphasizing his ties to law enforcement,” Bray said. “I’ve been an assistant DA. In that sense we’re similar. I think you have to be a little careful with that. Most people are pro-law enforcement in that we all know police officers have a hard job to do. We want them to be there to protect us. We don’t want to make them come in and testify in court the next morning after a long night on shift. On the other hand, when it comes to a criminal case, the police officer is a witness like any other. You still have to maintain your fairness. In district court, what I do is weigh credibility.”

In one murder case handled by Albright, the district attorney’s zealous prosecution played a role in a decision by the NC Court of Appeals to reverse a conviction.

Just before Albright was appointed superior court judge, a three-judge panel at the Court of Appeals unanimously overturned a judgment entered by Judge Steve A. Balog in Guilford County Superior Court finding Joel Mark Durham guilty of first-degree murder. The ruling written by Judge Robin Hudson – herself a candidate for NC Supreme Court justice this year – granted Durham a new trial.

According to court records, Durham admitted that he shot an estranged friend, Ralph Daniel Gaiser, to death at the victim’s home in July 2002. As another man at the house pleaded for mercy, Durham reportedly replied, “This doesn’t concern you. It is a CIA hit.”

As described by Hudson, Durham’s counsel appealed the conviction based on the argument “that the court erred in allowing the state to argue that the jury could use his silence while in custody as evidence of defendant’s sanity, in violation of his constitutional rights. We agree.”

Arguing the case for the state was Stuart Albright.

The right to remain silent is well established under the Constitution, Hudson admonished, and “it is equally well settled that when a defendant exercises his right to silence, it ‘shall not create any presumption against him.'”

Hudson wrote: “The prosecutor’s remarks referred repeatedly to the defendant’s silence, not merely to his behavior, and clearly urged the jury to infer that defendant was sane enough to know that remaining silent was in his best interest.” Albright today makes no apologies for his handling of the Durham case, arguing that he was careful to get permission from the judge and that testimony by expert witnesses called by the defense was riddled with contradictions.

“Hopefully it would reflect great on my ability to judge,” he said, adding, “Post-arrest silence, normally you’re not allowed to comment on that. The defense, they introduced an exhibit that had the defendant’s post-arrest silence. I informed the judge that I intended to talk about it. The judge is a very good judge, but I wanted to make sure the defendant’s rights were not trampled. I made sure the jury was out of the room when I made the motion; I didn’t just blurt it out. I got permission. I hate that it was overturned.”

While striving to uphold the law and exercise fairness Albright suggested that he would be subject to human limitations like anyone else.

“I can tell you I’m not perfect and I make mistakes,” he said. “I did everything I could to follow the letter of the law. As a judge certainly I would rely on case law. Hopefully, I will be perfect. But I will not be perfect.”

Whoever Guilford County voters elect is likely to have the job for a long time.

“Typically in superior court if you’ve made it through one term and done a good job, it’s yours,” Bray said. “Unless you’ve done something crazy or done a horrible job.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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