When state Rep. Justin Burr spoke on the House floor last week about a proposal to create a stand-alone judicial district in his home county by shifting resources away from Eastern North Carolina, he said it would help even out judge’s workloads.
He neglected to mention two previous attempts he’d made to alter the Stanly County Courthouse, to break up what Burr referred to as a “courthouse mafia” in a 2012 letter he sent to a top judicial official.
The recent changes Burr sought were tacked on to the $20.6 billion state budget as an amendment last week and will make Stanly County, located in the state’s Piedmont area, the smallest judicial district in the state while also moving a district court judge with whom Burr has publicly tangled with into a neighboring courthouse. If backed by the Senate in upcoming budget negotiations, it would also move resources away from several northeastern North Carolina counties.
The state’s district court judges unanimously passed a resolution at their summer conference this week opposing the piecemeal changes to the state’s judicial system.
Burr declined to return phone calls seeking comment.
W. Rob Lewis II, a district court judge for the past 19 years from Hertford County in northeastern North Carolina, said he found out his job was slated for elimination two weeks ago when the budget amendment was discussed in a legislative committee.
“It caught everyone by surprise,” Lewis said.
Four district court judges, instead of the existing six, will cover a four-county area (Halifax, Bertie, Northampton and Hertford counties) in the impoverished northeastern part of the state under Burr’s proposal to consolidate the existing 6A and 6B judicial districts. Burr’s proposal also would combine the offices of two of the state’s nine elected female district attorneys, leaving the two to face each other in a 2014 election.
Burr said the shifts were made based on data from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts’ judicial workload assessments, which shows that nearly all the state’s district court level courts are understaffed at the district court level. AOC staffers were contacted after Burr came up with the proposed changes and the state agency then provided caseload data for the affected counties, said Sharon Gladwell, a spokeswoman for the state courts system. (The caseload data is available on page 3 of this link)
The four-county area selected by Burr showed a need for between four and five judges, less than the six the two districts currently have. (Click here and here to see the AOC’s analysis of Burr’s proposed changes.)
AOC staff pointed out in communication to the legislature’s fiscal research division that there were other parts of the state in much more need of extra judicial positions than those that Burr selected, including an extra district court seat he put in Cleveland County (District 27B). Alexander and Iredell counties (Judicial District 22A), in the western part of the state, only have five district court judges, but have caseloads that requires 7 to 8 district court judges, according to the AOC analysis.
Superior court judges, which traditionally handle felony criminal cases and civil cases seeking more than $10,000 in damages, were not affected by Burr’s proposal. District courts in North Carolina handle a variety of cases, including family legal disputes, child custody cases, juvenile courts, traffic and misdemeanor criminal cases.
Lewis, the Hertford County judge, said the vast area of the newly created district would make it hard for judges to meet the counties’ needs, even if caseload data shows the area needs four judges and not the six it currently has.
“It would be unfair to the people of the district,” Lewis said. “Four judges can’t handle, logistically, all the courts that we’re mandated to hold in four counties. — juvenile courts, domestic courts, domestic violence courts, family courts, traffic court, criminal courts.”
Burr’s amendment prompted the state’s district court judges to unanimously pass a resolution at their annual summer conference Tuesday to create a study committee to look at the state as a whole and give recommended changes to the N.C. General Assembly for its 2015 long session.
“The N.C. Association of District Court Judges is opposed to consolidation of judicial districts without thorough study from the State Judicial Council and Court Officials,” the resolution states.
Robert Rader, a Wake County district court judge and current head of the district court judge’s association, said the state’s judges want the entire state analyzed before to ensure limited courts resources go where they’re most needed.
State Rep. Annie Mobley, an Ahoskie Democrat who represents the eastern counties, said the amendment introduced last week as a special provision to the budget was unfair to her district.
“Because of this action on the House floor these people are losing access to the judicial system, access to judicial services and a full opportunity to have their needs met by the judiciary,” Mobley said.
During the debate about the amendment last week, state Rep. Nathan Baskerville, a freshman Democrat from Henderson, asked why Burr’s changes were tacked on to the budget and not run as a separate bill.
“Why not file a bill, let it be heard in committee, just that bill alone, and not try to slip it in as an amendment to a $20 billion budget? ,“ Baskerville asked.
Burr’s courthouse criticisms
This isn’t the first attempt by Burr to tinker with the makeup of his county courthouse, where he’s had an ongoing public dispute with senior District Court Judge Lisa Thacker. Thacker, who did not return calls seeking comment, is from Anson County, but presides over Stanly, Anson and Richmond counties in the current set-up.
Burr proposed a similar changes in a 2011 bill out of concerns about “growing problems of favoritism, nepotism, cronyism and the failure of anyone to take action” against what Burr referred as a “courthouse mafia” in an August 2012 letter he wrote to N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker asking her to remove Thacker from the bench. (Click here to read a copy of Burr’s letter.)
While Burr’s 2011 bill would have eliminated Thacker’s job, the new bill would take Stanly County out from under her oversights and leave room for a new judge and elected District attorney in Stanly County.
Scott Brewer, a district court judge from Richmond County and part of the judicial district that currently includes Burr’s home in Stanly County, said he didn’t have advance knowledge of the proposed changes.
“I don’t know what his motivations are,” Brewer said. “We haven’t talked to him.”
(Brewer is a former assistant district attorney accused in 2006 by the N.C. State Bar of withholding evidence in a death penalty trial, allegations that were eventually dismissed because of technicalities).
Parker did not act on Burr’s 2012 request though a State Bureau of Investigation launched around that time did look at some of the allegations Burr referenced.
According to press accounts, the SBI looked into 2012 allegations that the son of a trial court administrator who worked in Thacker’s office had gotten preferential treatment for several criminal charges and that the court administrator tried to bribe a police officer with memorabilia signed by singer Kellie Pickler, the American Idol star from Albemarle in Stanly County.
Pickler later took to her own Facebook page to deny the allegations and attributed the situation to local politics.
The SBI has since finished its investigation and special prosecutors asked to look at the case and declined to file any charges, said Noelle Talley, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Justice.
Lewis, the Hertford judge who presides over courtrooms 240 miles to the east of Stanly County, said he’s unsure of why his region, and his seat, were chosen for consolidation by Burr.
“It wasn’t done scientifically,” Lewis said. “It was just the powers that be.”
Northeastern North Carolina is among the poorest and most geographically remote parts of the state, he said, giving judges in the rural communities challenges that their urban counterparts don’t face.
“We have a lot of disadvantages,” Lewis said. “I do feel that because we’re four counties without much resources that we are being somewhat singled out.”
Note: This article has changed from its original form to reflect that state courts system staff were contacted about judicial case load data after, and not prior, to Burr drafting the changes to various judicial districts.
Comments? Questions? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].