As if North Carolina judicial candidates did not have a difficult enough time becoming household names, the race for one of four N.C. Court of Appeals seats this November has 19 candidates trying to distinguish themselves.
The ballot to fill the appellate seat of Chief Judge John C. Martin just might be the most crowded ever in North Carolina.
Figuring out which box to mark, some say, could be almost like drawing a name out of a hat or playing a game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
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“It probably will be for most people,” said Burley Mitchell, a former chief justice on the N.C. Supreme Court. “It may well mean most people won’t vote.”
The good news for candidates in the special election on Nov. 4 is that a little more than 6 percent of the vote fetches a win.
But many people say that is not so good in a state where the political fight for the courts has ratcheted up in recent years.
“It is very bad news for the voters, and it is very bad news for the judicial system,” said Catharine Biggs Arrowood, president of the N.C. Bar Association. “Although it gives voters lots of choices, voters just won’t have much information on the candidates. We may come out of the race with a fabulous judge for the Court of Appeals, but it shows how we need to change the system.”
Martin, who will be 71 five days after the November elections, announced his early retirement unexpectedly in August.
The retirement came too late in the election process for candidates seeking his seat to be winnowed to two in a primary election. Had the resignation occurred before May, that could have happened. “I think people thought there would be five or six people,” Arrowood said. “But 19!”
Had the retirement come weeks later, the replacement could have been a gubernatorial appointee who served until the 2016 elections.
Instead, Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Special Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell to fill the Martin seat until Dec. 31.
She is not one of the 19 candidates seeking the seat.
The list includes eight Democrats, eight Republicans and three unaffiliated candidates. Eleven of the candidates are from Wake County.
Who is running?
The candidates are:
• John S. Arrowood, a former N.C. Court of Appeals member, a Charlotte attorney in private practice and a Democrat.
• Betsy Bunting, a retired attorney from Raleigh and a Democrat.
• Lori G. Christian, a Wake County District Court judge from Cary and a Democrat.
• Jeffrey Cook, a lawyer from Clayton and a Republican.
• J. Brad Donovan, deputy commissioner of the N.C. Industrial Commission from Raleigh. He is unaffiliated.
• Daniel Patrick Donahue, a lawyer in private practice from Hertford and a Democrat.
• Sabra Faires, an attorney in private practice from Wake County who is unaffiliated.
• Abe Jones, a former Wake County Superior Court judge, a lawyer in private practice from Raleigh and a Democrat.
• Ann Kirby, an assistant public defender from New Bern and a Republican.
• Keischa Lovelace, a deputy commissioner of the N.C. Industrial Commission from Raleigh and a Democrat.
• Marty Martin, a former public defender and lawyer in private practice from Raleigh and a Democrat.
• Hunter Murphy, a trial lawyer from Waynesville and a Republican.
• Joseph “Jody” A. Newsome, an attorney in private practice from Raleigh. He is unaffiliated.
• Elizabeth Davenport Scott, a litigation partner from Raleigh and a Republican.
• Patricia “Tricia” Shields, a trial attorney from Cary and a Democrat.
• John M. Tyson, a former N.C. Court of Appeals judge in private practice in Fayetteville and a Republican.
• Marion Warren, a District Court judge from Ash and a Republican.
• Chuck Winfree, a lawyer in private practice from Greensboro and a Republican.
• Valerie Johnson Zachary, an attorney in private practice from Yadkinville and a Republican.
The appeals court is made up of 15 judges who hear cases in panels of three. They review proceedings from the trial courts for errors of law or legal procedures, not questions of fact. The judges also hear direct appeals from some of the state’s administrative agencies.
On the stump
For the past several months, the 19 candidates have been crisscrossing the state, trying to inform people that there are races for the Court of Appeals this year and that the race for the Martin seat will be a long ballot. They have been going to forums and meetings as well as taking to Facebook and other social media sites to get their campaign messages out.
Unlike traditional political races, judges tend to steer clear of hot-button issues. Many of those topics end up in the courts, and the candidates do not want to show partiality, either by appearance or in practice.
Bob Orr, a former N.C. Supreme Court member, said weeks ago that he expected endorsements would help candidates and voters gravitate toward a shorter list on Election Day.
The N.C. Republican Party has endorsed Tyson, the N.C. Democratic Party endorsed Arrowood, and the N.C. Democratic Black Caucus endorsed Lovelace.
On Friday, Tyson said he expects candidates toward the top of the list – and he will be third because of the way the ballot is printed – will benefit from more votes than those in the middle. Tyson touts his experience as the only candidate previously elected to the court.
Arrowood, who also served on the court, also touts his experience.
Lovelace said Friday that she thinks she could help bring a needed diversity to the courts.
But like many of the candidates, she talked about a need to develop a different process for the future.
A ballot with 19 candidates makes it difficult for those seeking the seat and ultimately voters, who might wonder about an appeals court judge who made it to the bench with less than 10 percent of the vote.
“It’s not fair to the candidates. It’s not fair to the voters. It’s not fair to the judiciary,” Lovelace said.