McCrory’s reappointment of a Democratic special judge bodes well

February 27, 2013 

There is nothing more important to the proper functioning of our system of justice than to have capable, competent, and – above all – fair judges who follow the rule of law.

As a lawyer, I know that often all that stands between our citizens and chaos is a smart and fair judge who calls the balls and strikes without favor. It’s those judges who ensure a just, stable and predictable legal climate, both for individuals and for businesses.

Gov. Pat McCrory has indicated that he understands this. Making his first judicial appointment last week – reappointing Judge Richard Doughton of Sparta, a lifelong Democrat – the governor is off to an excellent start. He deserves our thanks and support for his efforts to do the right thing and ensure excellence on the bench.

McCrory will have several appointments to make to fill judicial vacancies this year. A handful of them will be to fill vacancies for Special Superior Court Judgeships, the position Judge Doughton holds.

The “Specials” can be assigned to handle trial courts anywhere in the state. They are not elected; the positions were established by the General Assembly and the judges are appointed by the governor to five-year terms.

In the past, other governors have used these appointments to put in place some of our state’s best trial court judges, including judges who often are assigned to particularly complex cases or thorny disputes where politics makes it difficult for local judges to preside.

Unfortunately, other of these appointments have been made simply to reward political supporters. That mistake understandably causes some to view all of these positions as merely political slots, rather than what they are: judgeships critical to the proper functioning of our complex system of justice.

That mistaken approach gives some context to Senate Bill 10, which at the start of the legislative session proposed to eliminate the “Specials.” That aspect of the bill, however, met with objection on the House side, and it now appears that McCrory will fill these positions as terms expire and vacancies naturally arise.

It is a noteworthy contrast that McCrory, with his first judicial appointment, signaled that what he seeks in the judiciary is not politics, but excellence.

Judge Doughton, a highly regarded jurist from Alleghany County in our northern mountains, now will serve another five-year term as a “Special.” This is particularly important because he serves as chairman of the state Criminal Pattern Jury Committee, a position that requires particular acumen and a significant personal time commitment, which is uncompensated.

He has a reputation as a very hard worker willing to take the toughest assignments. In short, he is a very fine judge and dedicated North Carolinian who happens also to be a lifelong Democrat.

The quality of our judges is important for us all. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2012 national survey of business law climates ranks North Carolina’s legal climate a mediocre 20th overall, with judicial competence 22nd and judicial independence 23rd. We must do better.

The N.C. Association of Defense Attorneys believes that North Carolinians should support McCrory as he seeks to improve our legal climate. Regardless of political affiliation, we should be grateful and thankful for leadership that promotes excellence over politics.

Christopher G. Smith is an attorney in Raleigh and president of the N.C. Association of Defense Attorneys.

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