Voted off bench, Abe Jones joins ranks of job seekers

ablythe@newsobserver.comNovember 26, 2012 

— Abe Jones has awaited many verdicts in his 17 years as a Wake County Superior Court judge, but they were always for others.

Three weeks ago, he received one himself. It came from the voters.

Wake County voters chose Bryan Collins, the Wake County public defender, over Jones in a judicial campaign orchestrated by the county’s chief resident Superior Court judge. The election’s verdict has handed Jones an uncomfortable sentence. After his term expires at the end of this year, the Harvard-educated lawyer and veteran jurist will be cast among the ranks of those looking for work in a frustrating job market.

“I’ve been thrown into new territory,” Jones said on a recent Tuesday.

Jones, 60, was in private practice for himself when he was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1995, so he has no law firm awaiting his return.

On a recent Tuesday, the judge was among the many job seekers gathered at White Memorial Presbyterian Church for the Career Transition Support Group. He spent a morning there, picking up tips on how to network.

“I collected all the handouts I could,” Jones said. “Seventy-five percent of my career has been in the Wake County courts.”

But as he prepares for a future off the bench, Jones continues to dwell on his ouster with a flurry of derogatory comments — not about his challenger — but about the man behind that campaign.

“I don’t like the fact that one man cast such a long shadow,” Jones said.

In a newly-carved judicial district that extends from North Raleigh around the center of the city to Knightdale, Wendell, Zebulon and North Garner, Collins received 51.9 percent of the 53,646 votes cast. Collins said Judge Donald Stephens approached him more than a year ago about running against Jones.

Stephens acknowledged that he encouraged Collins’ candidacy. The chief resident Superior Court judge has long been critical of Jones’ administrative skills and he recently called into question his work ethic. Those criticisms were echoed in a 2011 survey distributed before the elections by the N.C. Bar Association.

The organization of practicing lawyers ranked incumbent judges and challengers on a 1–5 scale, with categories ranging from legal ability to integrity.

Jones took a beating from the lawyers who responded, and Collins fared well.

During his campaign and post-election, Jones has tried to raise doubts about such surveys, saying the methodologies used can bring unbalanced results for minorities.

Last week, he went to Greensboro to discuss the issue with Alan Duncan, the lawyer who is president of the association. Though many lawyers incumbents and challengers – have welcomed the surveys, Jones offered a different view.

“I told him, ‘You don’t know who’s filling out those surveys, and you don’t want the Bar Association doing this,’” Jones said.

Duncan put him on the Bar Association’s survey committee.

Jones wavers between whether it’s better to have judges appointed or elected, a debate heard across the country.

Before the election, he was leaning toward election as the best method for filling the Superior Court bench. But afterward, he said he was leaning toward appointment.

“Judges just don’t deserve to be put through a meat-grinder campaign,” Jones said..

As Jones wrestles with his predicament, he ticks off a list of cases that he has presided over during his two-plus terms on the bench. A broad smile stretches across his face as he talks about the role he played in the lawsuit filed by Rielle Hunter, the mother of former presidential candidate John Edwards’ youngest child, against Andrew Young, his former aide.

The infamous sex tape was part of that case.

Jones said he refused to watch the tape to make sure it was the real thing. Instead he asked two female lawyers to watch it for him — one from each side — and index the important parts.

“I just didn’t want to do it,” Jones said. “I sometimes see him socially. I would feel like I was in his bedroom.”

Jones said he will miss being a judge, and that he hopes an enthusiasm for new opportunities will soon replace the residual campaign bitterness nagging him still.

“The issue is whether I let a bad experience run me away,” Jones said. “I’ve thought about running to Oregon. I love it out there.”

But North Carolina is home, he says.

He echoes the words his mother greeted him with after he came home on election night after lingering at the Board of Elections, not knowing what to tell the family who helped him with his campaign.

“My mother’s very religious,” Jones recounted on a recent afternoon. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, God’s got something better for you.’ I hope she’s right.”

What that plan is, he said, is still gelling.

“The way to move beyond this is to do something constructive,” Jones said. “I don’t want to get mired in the past.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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