PW exclusive: Incumbent Chris Dillon, challenger Gray Styers vie for Court of Appeals seat

PW exclusive: Incumbent Chris Dillon, challenger Gray Styers vie for Court of Appeals seat

Democratic challenger Gray Styers (L) and Republican Chris Dillon (R)

[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 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.]

The court is currently made up of 15 judges who review trial court proceedings for errors of law or legal procedure. They decide only questions of law, not questions of fact, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. The role of the court is to decide if the trial court correctly applied the law, or if there was prejudicial error in the conduct of the trial.

The final installment in this series focuses on the race for Seat #6 on the North Carolina Court of Appeals between incumbent Republican Chris Dillon and Democratic challenger Gray Styers. Earlier this month, the two candidates appeared in a WUNC-TV segment that can be viewed by clicking here.

*A note about the Q&As: Candidates were not given instructions about the length of their responses, and they have only been edited for grammar.

Candidates for Court of Appeals Seat 6:

Name: Chris Dillon

Party affiliation: Republican

Website: www.judgechrisdillon.com

What characteristics do you believe make a good judge, and why should North Carolinians vote for you (please include info about any courtroom and or trial court experience)?

A good judge is one who does not approach the job with a political agenda, but who truly searches out the law as it is and applies it.

Voters should consider reelecting me because of my experience and my bipartisan support, among other reasons

-Experience: We have 15 judges on our State’s Court of Appeals. There are five seats up in this election cycle, with two candidates in each race:  I am the only candidate seeking re-election and have more experience on our Court than the other nine candidates combined. Our two most senior judges are retiring, and two other senior judges retired last year. If re-elected, I will be the second most senior judge on our Court.

-Bipartisan support: Judicial races were non-partisan in North Carolina until four years ago. I am one of a handful of judges on our Court who first ran and won when our judicial races were non-partisan. I have never been active in party politics and have approached my role as a judge in an aggressively non-partisan way. I have the support from both Republican and Democratic former judges/office-holders.

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

I have never found it difficult to be an independent judge. I have never felt political pressure to apply the law in a non-partisan way. I was never actively involved in partisan politics or partisan campaigns, nor had I ever worked for the government. I found that many voters prefer judicial candidates who are not political. A good characteristic about our appellate judges is that we serve eight-year terms. As such, since my election in 2012, I have been able to stay away from political events and campaigns, allowing me to perform my job in an independent fashion.

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

COVID-19 has changed campaigning for all candidates this cycle. Candidates do not have as much opportunity to engage voters in a direct way. Live forums and events have largely been cancelled. Also, COVID-19 has required that I adjust in how I perform my job as a judge, which has taken additional time. I have focused more on attending online events and seeking the endorsements of non-partisan groups, as the number of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina has increased dramatically, while the number of Republican and Democratic voters have fallen.

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?

Our criminal justice system is one of the best in the world. It is not perfect, but it has come a long way. It certainly can and should be made better. It will never be perfect, because those working in the system are not perfect. I believe there are people of good will at all levels of our system, whether they are those reading this survey who serve on juries, or police officers, or prosecutors, or defense attorneys, or judges. But there are also those whose decisions in carrying out their function are tainted by racist attitudes. I cannot comment on whether the system itself is racist. But no matter the system we adopt, there will be problems where there are people in the system with racist attitudes. Certainly, the more we can identify and root out these attitudes, the closer to a perfect justice system we will come.

How do you define injustice?

I define injustice in our legal system as any occurrence where someone in our system does not apply the law in an equal fashion. There are times when I believe someone may be guilty of a crime but where the defendant did not receive a fair jury trial. In my view, it would be unjust for me to allow this conviction to stand, as we are all entitled to a fair jury trial.

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

Judges have an important role in our government; however, we should always stay in our lane when deciding cases. A judge should apply a law even if the judge does not personally agree with the policy decision behind the law if the legislature had the constitutional authority to enact the law.

With that said, judges should step in when the General Assembly exceeds their authority, no matter which party is in control. I have voted to declare acts unconstitutional that have been passed by our General Assembly over the past decade on at least three occasions:  (1) I voted to declare a criminal sanction as being unconstitutionally overbroad, a decision that was reversed by our Supreme Court 4-3, but which was reinstated by SCOTUS 9-0 (State v. Packingham); (2) I wrote a decision declaring a law unconstitutional that allowed certain traffic fines to be used to fund our prison system, where our state constitution clearly requires such fines to be used to fund education; and (3) I voted to declare a law unconstitutional which would have no longer required that a public school teacher be given a hearing before being fired.

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

North Carolina should change the way judicial campaigns are financed. When I ran in 2012, I ran under an old law that provided appellate judges with State funds to run their campaigns. If a candidate agreed to limit his/her fundraising efforts to small donations and not receive corporate/PAC money, the candidate would be eligible to receive money from a fund set up by the State. Under this system, a candidate still had the freedom to opt out of receiving the State funds and to raise as much money as they wanted.

That law was repealed shortly after my election in 2012. Since that time, judicial candidates have typically raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely from attorneys who may one day appear before them and from PAC’s. Also, outside groups have become much more actively involved in running ads in judicial races. I believe the old system worked better and created a sense that judicial campaigns were not as partisan as they are now.

*****

Name: Gray Styers

Party affiliation: Democrat

Website: www.styersforjudge.com

What characteristics do you believe make a good judge, and why should North Carolinians vote for you (please include info about any courtroom and or trial court experience)?

For appellate judge, some of the core characteristics include fairness, independence, impartiality, integrity, breadth of experience, knowledge of the law, and commitment to the rule of law and the role of the courts. I started my career as a law clerk for Chief Judge Sam J. Ervin on Fourth Circuit, US Court of Appeals. I have practiced law for thirty years, representing hundreds and clients in courtrooms, boardrooms, and administrative hearing rooms in all parts of our state. I have tried dozens of cases to verdict and argued appeals at all levels or our court system. I also understand the practical consequences of a judge’s decisions. I believe my experience and understanding qualify me to now give back to my fellow North Carolinians as a judge.

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

I don’t see those two facts being in conflict or creating a tension to be balanced. I trust that I will be elected to be an independent judge. We come to the office and are held accountable through an electoral process, but the commitment of a judge should be to uphold the rule of law for everyone, respect the value of settled legal precedents, and safeguard the protections of our Constitution. I am running for judge on the Court of Appeals to serve those values.

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

It has changed campaigning considerably. I was looking forward to traveling the state and meeting and talking with voters in person. COVID-19 has required us to pivot to a more on-line/virtual effort: making and posting video speeches, participating on Zoom meetings, and relying more on social media.

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?

Yes; I believe systemic racism exists, and, by its very definition, exists throughout society at varying levels and manifested in varying ways. The criminal justice system is a part of the broader society, and the people who work in it are part of the broader community. First, it is incumbent upon all of us to listen, learn, and thoughtfully examine implicit biases. We need our criminal justice system to be more diverse and inclusive in its hiring and personnel. We also we need to look for and eliminate structural or functional barriers to equal access to justice. I am excited by Governor Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity created by Executive Order 145 and look forward to its findings and recommendations.

How do you define injustice?

The statues of Justitia (i.e. Lady Justice) show her blindfolded and holding balanced scales, suspended from the top, not held from the bottom from where they can be tilted. When the scales are tilted in someone’s favor, or decisions rendered not according to the impartial rule of law, but because of a person’s perceived characteristics – race, gender, religion, color, national origin, sexual orientation, wealth, or status – that’s injustice. Injustice can also occur when inequities prevent a person from having access to due process and a fair hearing.

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

The North Carolina Constitution establishes three distinct and equal branches of government – legislative (Art. 2), executive (Art. 3), and judicial (Art. 4). It’s not an issue of deference or the supremacy of one branch over another. Each of them has an integral and separate role to play in our government. In my view, an appellate judge has two basic tasks. First, he or she is called upon to review and ensure that the law was correctly applied by the trial judge in disputes between private parties in civil actions and between the State and private parties in criminal or administrative cases. Second, appellate judges are called upon to ensure that the legislative and executive branches of government exercise the authority that is available to them subject to appropriate constitutional limits. I believe that the role of a judge in attempting to carry out both of these functions is to decide specific cases on the basis of the existing law and the properly-established facts without attempting to further any sort of political or ideological agenda.

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

In addition, and related to, the issue of systemic racism discussed in my response to Questions 4, one of the greatest challenges is how to provide legal representation to North Carolinians with limited financial means. I was the co-founder of the pro bono “Lawyer on the Line” program to help engage and mobilize more private practice attorneys to assist clients of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

As the law has become increasingly complex, too many people don’t know how, and need assistance, to understand their legal rights and navigate the judicial system. I also believe the judicial system needs resources to upgrade its technology that can both improve court efficiency and make the courts more accessible and transparent. COVID-19 has shown a spotlight on the opportunities of using technology in the judicial system, but also highlighted the challenges to fully realize those opportunities.