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PW exclusive: Lucy Inman, Phil Berger, Jr. vie for NC Supreme Court seat

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[Editor’s note: As part of our ongoing effort to inform North Carolinians about the state judiciary, Policy Watch is publishing a series of Q&A’s over the coming weeks with the candidates seeking statewide judicial office this fall. Each of the 16 candidates (six who are contesting three Supreme Court seats and ten who are contesting five seats on the Court of Appeals) was asked the same seven questions by former PW Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter Melissa Boughton. Candidates were not given instructions about the length of their responses, which have been edited only for grammar.

Regrettably, unlike in 2018 when all candidates responded to our inquiries, some did not provide answers this year. To help inform voters in these cases, we will provide links to the unresponsive candidate’s website as well as available information about any public debates in which both candidates for the race in question have participated, or are expected to participate.]

Installment No. 3 in the series focuses on the race for the associate justice seat on the state Supreme Court being vacated  by Associate Justice Paul Newby, who is challenging current incumbent Chief Justice, Cheri Beasley. The court is made up of the chief and six associate justices. Each justice serves an eight-year term. The court is the last stop for litigation involving decisions of state law. Some recent high-profile cases taken up by the state Supreme Court have included redistricting disputes, separation of powers battles between the governor and the legislature, and the fight between the State Board of Education and the state Superintendent over who controls the state’s $10 billion public school system.

Supreme Court candidates:

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Judge Lucy Inman

Name: Lucy Inman

Party affiliation: Democrat

Website: www.lucyinmanforjustice.com/ [3]

What characteristics do you believe make a good judge, and why should North Carolinians vote for you?

Legal and judicial experience, integrity, intellectual honesty, a strong work ethic, curiosity and open mindedness, discipline, listening and reading skills, writing and editing skills, dedication to the rule of law and our state and federal constitutions, and respect for every person who appears before the court are among the characteristics that make a good judge.

A decade of experience as a judge and a strong record of fairness make me a proven candidate and trustworthy guardian of the North Carolina Supreme Court and the decisions that collectively make up its jurisprudence. I am running to protect our justice system from partisan politics and ideology that have no place in the third branch of government.

My first experience in a courtroom was working as a newspaper reporter, where I was responsible for gathering information from different perspectives. I soon realized that our courts are where humanity meets government, and that I wanted to participate in the justice system. After graduating from law school, I worked as a law clerk for then North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Exum. I then practiced law for 18 years, representing people from all walks of life and businesses large and small. For four years beginning in 2010, I served as a Superior Court judge in courthouses across our state. Since 2014, when I was elected statewide to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, I have authored more than 400 appellate opinions. That work is the best evidence of my qualifications to serve on the Supreme Court. In every opinion, I strive to write an explanation of the court’s decision in straightforward terms that lawyers, their clients, other courts and the general public can understand.

How will you balance being an independent judge and an elected official?

Judges must maintain the balance between their roles as elected officials and their sworn duty to remain impartial and independent. Because judges are duty bound to serve as impartial arbiters of the law, our status as elected officials does not authorize us to advance any policy or political agenda. Judges owe a duty to all North Carolinians to make sure the law is applied consistently and equally to every person, without fear of retaliation by any person or institution, and without favor to any person or institution. It is essential that judges remain independent of the other two branches of government, because it is the role of the third branch to serve as a check on actions of the other two branches that violate the federal or state constitution. Judges should be held accountable to honestly and plainly explain every opinion they write.

How has COVID-19 changed your election campaigning if at all?

Since mid-March, COVID-19 has restricted my campaigning to communications by phone, email, social media and videoconferencing. During the unexpected and unprecedented quiet weeks, I and my campaign staff of one made health and safety and caring for others a priority and shifted our campaign efforts from travel and meeting schedules to organizing and developing a strategy for campaigning going forward. We learned to record short videos on mobile phones to communicate with groups we had planned to meet with in person.

We have devoted most of our time and effort to organizing and participating in telephone and online meetings with voters across the state. Town hall meetings and fundraising events have all moved to online video conference platforms. One silver lining of the new platform is that citizens with internet access can participate in meetings from the comfort of their homes, and I can reach people in all areas of the state without the time and expense required for travel. People who generally don’t attend large gatherings because of busy schedules or discomfort in crowds are now more likely to participate.

Disadvantages included the missed opportunity for individual conversations, the lack of internet access in rural areas and the new requirements of equipment and computer skills for citizens to attend events. Going forward, I expect campaigning will include voter education about how to vote by mail and otherwise access the polls without risking anyone’s health. The get out the vote effort will require new skills and assistance to voters navigating new barriers to the ballot box.

Do you believe systemic racism permeates our criminal justice system? If so, how do you plan to dismantle it to ensure equal access to justice for all North Carolinians under the law?

I agree with North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s recent public statements regarding racial disparities in our criminal and civil justice systems. Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Gilbert King’s book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, chronicle the historical origins of these disparities and systems devised to perpetuate them. Statutes and common law governing civil justice have a disparate impact on people of color for reasons including a disconnect between rules and standards enacted by the white majority and the alternative rules and practices followed by racial minorities who distrust the governing system. They exist in the form of cash bond conditions of pre-trial release, court fees and fines, disparate access to legal counsel in both criminal and civil proceedings, racial disparity in criminal sentencing and civil jury awards, the ability of private actors to exploit the law to deprive racial minorities of property rights, and implicit biases that prevent the most well-intended jurors and judges from applying the law equally to people of different races.

Judges alone cannot dismantle systemic racism, because our constitutional authority does not include making law or changing legislative and executive branch policies. Appellate judges are duty bound to follow the laws enacted by our legislature, except for laws that violate the protections of the federal and state constitutions. Appellate judges are also duty bound to follow precedent, except in cases in which the rationale underlying that precedent has materially changed. Appellate judges are not restricted from identifying racial injustice resulting from statute and precedent, even if that injustice does not violate the state or federal constitution. Appellate judges have a duty to identify injustices that are consequences of their decisions and to ask questions about the risk of racial injustice created by our justice system. I have fulfilled these duties and pledge to fulfill them going forward.

How do you define injustice?

Injustice is the opposite of justice. It occurs in both procedural and substantive forms. Procedural injustice includes deprivation of the right to due process, such as the opportunity to the opportunity to be heard. Substantive injustice includes both conscious and unconscious bias, favoritism and fear that influence a judicial decision. It also includes the disparate impact of laws on communities for reasons unrelated to the merits of legal matters, including inequitable systems of punishments, costs, and access to representation.

To what extent do you believe that a judge should or should not defer to actions of a legislature?

All acts of the legislature are subject to the restrictions provided in our state and federal constitutions, which are the ultimate and supreme legal authority. Long established North Carolina Supreme Court precedent holds that acts of the legislature are presumed to be constitutional and will not be overturned by the courts unless proven to be unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt. This precedent requires deference by courts to acts of the legislature. But it is the duty of every judge to consider each challenge to legislative authority, and each challenge to the manner in which a statute has been applied, with diligence and intellectual honesty.

What are the biggest changes you think North Carolina needs to make to its judicial system?

Investing the funds necessary to deliver the necessary tools — appointed counsel, waiver of fees and costs for low wealth and indigent people, specialty courts focusing cases involving substance abuse, mental health, veterans, for example), improved technology to help the courts operate more efficiently and to make them more accessible to the public, and innovations in partnerships with stakeholders including law enforcement, civil rights advocates, schools, and health care systems. The legislature has the authority and responsibility to provide such funding.

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Judge Phil Berger, Jr.

Name: Phil Berger Jr.

Party affiliation: Republican

Website: www.philbergerjr.org/landing/justice/ [5]

Note: Berger Jr. did not respond to multiple emails over a two-week period asking for his participation in the Policy Watch voter guide Q&A.

The two candidates participated in a joint appearance on for UNC-TV in late August that can be accessed by clicking here [6].