Candidates for clerk of court, District Court judge and N.C. Court of Appeals touted their experience, integrity and decision-making skills during a forum here.
The forum, staged by the Johnston County Bar Association, drew Republican Michelle Ball and Democrat Michelle Denning, candidates for clerk of court; Joy Jones and LeVonda Wood, who are vying to succeed Andy Corbett on the District Court bench; incumbent District Court Judge Caron Stewart and her challenger, Ken Jones; and Appeals Court Judge Mark Davis and his challenger, Paul Holcombe, a District Court judge in Johnston, Harnett and Lee counties.
Lucy Inman, a Superior Court judge seeking an Appeals Court seat, was also on hand. Her opponent, Bill Southern, a District Court judge in Stokes and Surry counties, did not attend.
Clerk of court
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Ball and Denning, both of Smithfield, hope to succeed longtime Clerk of Court Will Crocker, who is retiring after decades in the post.
As a legal assistant at Spence & Spence P.A. for the past 22 years, Ball said she had gained experience in real-estate matters, trust accounts and much more. She said she has learned to not be afraid to make tough decisions.
“Sometimes (attorney Bob Spence Jr.) helps me carry the burden of the problem; many times he drops it on my desk and says, ‘Unwrap it, figure it out, and give it back to (me) straightened out,’ ” Ball said. “That’s what I do.”
In North Carolina, clerks of court are responsible for clerical and record-keeping duties for Superior Court and District. Clerks also handle the probate of wills, and they hear a variety of special proceedings, including adoptions and partitions of land. A law degree is not required.
Ball does not have a law degree, but she said her years of experience more than make up for that.
“I do believe a good, working legal knowledge, backed up by 22 years of experience, speaks volumes,” she said. “And I think many of you in this room who have had the opportunity to work with me know that I understand how the system works and how the law works and how it needs to be applied.”
Denning has been a special deputy commissioner for the N.C. Industrial Commission since 2006. She said she knew from a young age that the legal field was her calling.
She has experience in real estate, worker’s compensation and civil matters. Also, she has taught the paralegal certification course at Johnston Community College for about nine years.
Johnston is North Carolina’s 13th largest county in terms of population, Denning noted. She thinks it’s important then for the clerk of court to have a law degree.
“As our county continues to grow, so will the responsibility of our clerk's office,” said Denning, who earned her law degree in 2004. “And with these growing challenges and complexities, now is the time for an attorney of law to lead this important office and make the important judicial decisions that our clerk of court is called upon to make.”
Jones vs. Wood
Wood, a Benson resident, started her own law firm in 2005 after she was robbed. That experience made her want to protect herself and her community from danger, she said.
Wood called herself a strict constructionist who believes in judicial restraint. It’s the duty of a judge to interpret the law as it’s written, not as he or she would like it to be, Wood said.
“I believe that integrity is the most important trait that a judge can have,” she said. “You either have integrity or you don’t. It’s not something that’s imparted by a black robe, and it’s not something that you can learn.”
Jones, who’s also an attorney in private practice, has 32 years of legal experience, most recently with a focus on criminal defense. She said her deep legal knowledge and years of experience qualified her for the judge’s seat.
“I promise you that I will treat you with respect, that your case will be tried fairly and seriously, and I will follow the law as it applies to your case,” she said.
Stewart vs. Jones
Stewart is running to keep her seat on the District Court bench in Johnson, Harnett and Lee counties. She succeeded Judge Winston Gilchrist seat in 2012 after he was appointed to the Superior Court bench. In the nomination process, Stewart received 99 out of a possible 121 votes from her fellow lawyers in the three counties. She was appointed by former Gov. Bev Perdue.
Stewart said she’s a fair and impartial judge who is deeply involved in her community. In her 28 years in the legal profession, she has accrued criminal and civil experience before a jury, she noted. Stewart said she has a passion for domestic-violence cases because she wants to improve the lives of children and families.
Jones, an attorney in Smithfield, noted that Stewart can’t preside over criminal cases in Harnett and Lee counties because her husband, Vernon K. Stewart, is the district attorney for those counties.
“When you put the robe on, a lot of times people change,” Jones said. “They’re no longer the person they were; that is not me. I know who I am. I’ve been through the highs, and I’ve been through the lows, and I am comfortable in my own skin. One of the things that really bothers me most is when the truth gets distorted.”
Jones said he entered the race because he thinks his impartiality would be an asset to the bench.
“I've counseled people over the years, and they’ve all said, ‘You’re fair, and you’re dedicated; you don’t care what color skin people have or how much money they make,’ ” he said.
Davis vs. Holcombe
Davis has served on the N.C. Court of Appeals since 2012. In that time, Davis said, he has heard 600 cases and written 200 decisions.
Holcombe, a District Court judge since 2008, said few Appeals Court judges have his experience in domestic, social-services and child-support matters. That experience would help him if elected, he said.
“I'm running because we absolutely need more judges on the Court of Appeals with that experience, particularly in this particular seat,” Holcombe said. “We need people who understand what it’s like to be a judge and what it’s like to try those types of cases.”
Inman vs. Southern
Inman and Southern are running to replace Robert C. Hunter on the state Court of Appeals.
Inman has been an N.C. Superior Court judge for four and a half years. A Raleigh native, she began her career as a newspaper reporter, eventually covering courts. She said she fell in love with the legal profession and earned her law degree from the University of North Carolina School at Chapel Hill.
Inman said she loves her current job but wants to become an appellate judge to ensure fairness in the state’s courtrooms.
“Every citizen is entitled to the same justice, no matter color of skin, gender, religion, party affiliation or anything else about you,” Inman said. The Appeals Court reviews cases “to make sure trial court judges are doing what we tell jurors to do, and that’s follow the law as it’s written.
“The only promise I can make in terms of what I’ll do ... is follow the law.”
Election day is Nov. 4. For more information, visit the Johnston County Board of Elections website.