Charlotte Observer editorial by Nancy Black Norelli on effectiveness of judicial election surveys
In the October 28th edition of the Charlotte Observer, the following editorial by Nancy Black Norelli was featured about the judicial elections.
Getting to the bottom of the ballot
In North Carolina, as in 31 other states, many trial judges will be running in contested elections in November. In a noisy election season, the races for trial court judge often receive little attention. Many voters cast the ballot for judge based on party affiliation, name recognition, ballot position or simply “skip it.” A recent poll in Indiana found that two-thirds of respondents “almost always” skip voting for judges while more than half indicated they do so because they do not have enough information.
By contrast, the importance of excellent judges in district and superior court cannot be overstated. To appreciate the importance of these races – usually found at the bottom of the ballot – a brief overview of what these judges actually do may prove helpful.
The district court can best be described as the “people’s court.” Indeed, some civil cases might resemble those on Judge Judy’s TV docket. Defendants from all backgrounds and stages of life crowd the criminal daily dockets – perhaps 75 to 100 in each metropolitan trial courtroom and literally hundreds in the administrative and arraignment courtrooms where bonds are set and inmates appear.
The sheer caseload can be staggering, but for the people in those courtrooms the crowds fade. Each defendant is concerned about his or her own case. The judge is faced with patiently giving attention to each defendant and moving the docket with speed. Knowledge of the law enables the good judge to move through the dockets, consistently deciding cases, with an appropriate demeanor and temperament to assure a respectful experience for all. A good judge treats each case as both unique and important and always acts with impartiality.
In family court, judges determine equitable distribution of assets, alimony, child support and important child custody decisions. The stakes are often high in terms of dollars and always high in terms of the well-being of children. Good judges bring knowledge of the law, respect for all and attentiveness. They render decisions promptly and carefully review orders before entry.
Juvenile court is yet another venue where young lives are impacted. The judge must review the recommendations of parents, competing professionals, prosecutors and defense lawyers. The buck stops with the judge. A good judge will be brave.
District and superior court judges handle real estate and contract disputes, personal injury, and a multitude of other kinds of civil cases. A superior court judge presides at felony trials, is responsible for making sure a jury is fairly selected, evidence rules are correctly applied, attorneys do not run afoul of those rules and the jury is instructed correctly. Good judges listen. They know the rules of procedure and evidence.
Trial court judges hold lives in their hands. An underage drinking citation, reckless driving ticket, a college prank, an unfortunate lack of cooperation with a police officer, a careless decision to drive after too many beers, a contract dispute or a custody battle can land anyone in the courtroom.
The North Carolina Bar Association has developed a survey to evaluate judges and non-incumbent candidates on integrity, legal ability, professionalism, communication and administrative skills. The result is that this year N.C. voters will have two broad-based and objective evaluations – one of incumbent judges’ performance and a second of the potential of non-incumbent candidates.
More than 4,200 active lawyers statewide participated in the survey of judges and more than 2,600 in the non-incumbent survey. The results are summarized and posted on the Internet. This important tool, which presents the information in a neutral, non-partisan way, is a helpful starting point for voters. All contested races can be accessed by individual county at www.electncjudges.org.
Football fans recently witnessed that replacement referees who lack experience and knowledge of the rules make incorrect calls and become real game changers. The same is true in trial courtrooms – parties deserve the correct calls and should win or lose cases on their merits, rather than a judge’s poor legal knowledge, lack of integrity or any other shortcoming.
Voters have a chance to help ensure that good judges are on the bench. Results at the bottom of the ballot affect everyone’s future.
Nancy Black Norelli is a former Mecklenburg district court judge who chairs the North Carolina Bar Association’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee.