Seeking prudence in judicial voting

by Daniel Schere

I’ve almost finished working my way through the state board of elections’ voter guide for this year’s slate of judicial candidates, and there is one race that has me kicking and screaming.

Well that’s a little dramatic, but the Court of Appeals race to replace outgoing Chief Judge John C. Martin is one of the most ambiguous and frustrating I’ve seen in my short five years of voting. Voters across the state will need to select from 19 candidates. With this year being a non-presidential election year, turnout will likely be somewhere around 40 percent, though the high-profile senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis could boost this a little. Many have already made up their minds about that race and most of the others. But perhaps some who are on the fence about whether they should drag themselves to the polls on Nov. 4 might be turned off by this notorious judicial race. With that said, I’ve come up with a few strategies for making your choice, which are a little better than Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.

1. Party: Judicial races are considered nonpartisan and the candidates are eager to use the term to describe themselves. But with candidates spending six figures on TV advertising most of us know that calling a judge nonpartisan is about as accurate as referring to a helping of fried cheesecake at the state fair as nonfat. Most candidates are registered with a party.

In this race there are eight registered Democrats, eight registered Republicans and three independents. If that doesn’t help eliminate some of the choices, look for phrases in their bio like “judicial restraint,” or “case-bycase basis.” That will give you a clue about their ideology when it comes to applying the law.

2. Experience: In the state voter guide you will see information on each candidate’s education and the year they were admitted to the bar. Most went to highly esteemed institutions that include the likes of UNC- Chapel Hill, Harvard and Wake Forest law schools, but some have had their law license for less than 10 years. This might not be a deal breaker, but do you really want people with that little experience ruling on hundreds of appealed lower court decisions every year? The other important factor to look at is the candidate’s diversity of experiences. Most have operated their own private practices during their career. Of those some have taught, some have served as clerks to judges at a higher level of the judicial system and some have served in a higher court themselves. Whatever their background, it is important because it influences their decision-making process.

3. Location Location Location: My editor Jeff says he prefers to vote for candidates from different parts of the state when it comes to electing judges. That might be difficult this year, with 11 candidates that are from the greater Raleigh region. Three candidates are from the state’s coastal region and Hunter Murphy, who is from Waynesville, is the lone candidate representing the mountains. With that being the case this year, voters probably will not factor in a candidate’s place of residence when heading to the polls, unless they know the candidate personally. But location can matter in another way. A North Carolina native will bring a different perspective than a northern transplant, as will someone who has worked in Washington during his or her legal career.

4. Presence: If the other three factors don’t do it for you, ask yourself how much you know about this person? Do they have a website? What kind of ads are they running? In most cases it is rare for judges to run attack ads, and in interviews they usually recite talking points already made in their candidate statements. But a candidate without a website or a social media presence sends a message whether they intend to or not. It either says, “I don’t value the public’s perception of me,” or “There’s something I don’t want you to know about me.” Now this clearly is not a foolproof guide. In fact it’s really more of an academic approach to voting, and one that I’ve never actually had to use before. But the bottom of the ballot is just as important as the top. These individuals help set legal precedent or go against it, and that affects millions. I hope reading this makes your vote this year a little easier, or encourages you to vote. Meanwhile I’ll probably be off grappling just as much with my choice tomorrow as I am today. !