Challenge raises questions in new Superior Court judicial district

Public defender tries to oust incumbent in Wake judge’s race

ablythe@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2012 

  • The candidates Abe Jones Democrat Website: Home: Raleigh Education: Harvard University, BA, 1974; law degree, 1977 Career: Wake County Superior Court judge since 1995; appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt; attorney in private practice from 1990-94; and former prosecutor and administrative law judge Bryan Collins Democrat Website: Home: Raleigh Education: Davidson College, BA in 1982; law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1985 Career: Attorney in private practice from 1985 to 2005; the public defender for Wake County since 2005

— Most residents in Wake County will find only one candidate for Superior Court judge on their ballot – incumbents seeking another term.

But in a new judicial district, there’s a contested race for a seat on the Superior Court bench. The unusually shaped district in eastern Wake County was created by the state legislature in 2011 and extends from North Raleigh around the center of the city to Knightdale, Wendell, Zebulon and North Garner.

Bryan Collins, the first Wake County public defender, has mounted a challenge against Abe Jones, a veteran judge with 17 years of experience on the bench.

The debate between the men has been courtly in public forums and meet-and-greets with the candidates.

But there have been many questions raised about Jones’ administrative skills and performance on the bench. Questions have also arisen about who really is behind Collins’ campaign and whether he is seeking office in the right district.

Collins, who has been a part of the defense team in some of the county’s higher-profile criminal cases in recent years – including the Jason Young murder trial – says he still loves his job as public defender but is ready for a new challenge.

Jones, the second-longest serving Superior Court judge in Wake County, contends that he’s a judge “who’s willing to take risks,” a man independent from what he describes as an “old-boys” club in the courthouse.

Both Collins and Jones are registered Democrats. Though judicial races are nonpartisan, Jones points to the fact that he is an incumbent being challenged by a Democrat as evidence of what he calls an orchestrated effort by another sitting judge to remove him from the bench.

“This is an inside the courthouse thing to get me,” said Jones.

When the state legislature, in response to a lawsuit, drew new judicial districts for Wake County, it was done so that each sitting judge lived in a separate district.

Collins, 52, said he was approached last year by Don Stephens, Wake County’s senior resident Superior Court judge, about running for judge. So, late last year, he moved from his condominium in downtown Raleigh to an apartment in North Raleigh just so he could run in District 10E.

Lawyers rate judges

Though Collins has stopped short of publicly criticizing Jones, he points to a Judicial Performance Evaluation Survey done by the North Carolina Bar Association, a voluntary organization with more than 15,000 members.

Amid the never-ending debate about whether judges should be appointed or elected, the N.C. Bar Association decided this year to ask lawyers familiar with the work of sitting trial court judges whose terms expire this year to rate them on “qualities that are required of good judges.”

Jones was rated by 690 lawyers. Collins, rated by 388 lawyers in an N.C. Bar Association survey for nonincumbent candidates, scored far better than Jones in the survey.

Of Collins’ respondents, 91.7 percent described his integrity and fairness, or impartiality, as good or excellent, compared with Jones’ 63.9 percent.

Also, 92.4 percent scored Collins’ legal skills as good to excellent. compared with Jones’ 45.1 percent.

Jones was rated very poorly on his administrative skills, with only 36.4 percent of his respondents giving him good to excellent marks. Collins received a 90.1 percent. Collins received a 92.1 percent for his professionalism, and Jones received a 65.1 percent.

Collins, a North Wilkesboro native who graduated from Davidson College and UNC-Chapel Hill law school, has referenced his high marks on the survey in his campaign literature.

Jones, an African-American judge who grew up in Raleigh and got his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University, points to research to cast doubts on such surveys, citing a study that found minorities often fare poorer in similar ratings.

The surveyors did not poll jurors or consider his record on appeals, Jones points out.

He was criticized by his fellow lawyers for problems with maintaining the court calendar, for being tardy in rendering verdicts and administrative skills. There have been accusations that he does not read all the material that lawyers provide him in cases, criticism he disputes.

“I’m a judge of the people, not the lawyers,” Jones said.

As early voting is under way in Wake County, both candidates have stepped up their campaigning amid the duties of their jobs inside the courthouse.

Residence questioned

On the campaign trail, questions have cropped up about whether Collins truly lives in the district where he is seeking a seat on the bench.

This past January, almost a month after moving to a rental property in North Raleigh, Collins got engaged to the woman he married in March, Allegra Collins.

Though his wife has a home on Little Falls Drive in a different judicial district, Collins maintains that his primary residence remains the apartment he rented in December. With a new child expected in his household any day, Collins said he and his bride plan to look for a new house in the judicial district once their family life settles down a bit.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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