How we see lo­cal ju­di­cial races

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY THE OB­SERVER ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

A big change in how judges are elected will shake up Meck­len­burg County’s ju­di­cial elec­tions this year, and ca­reers are at stake.

Dis­trict court judges have tra­di­tion­ally been elected coun­ty­wide. But the leg­is­la­ture this year di­vided the county into eight new dis­tricts. So judges, who serve the whole county, will be elected by a small frac­tion of vot­ers. (We and oth­ers sus­pect that this was done to help Repub­li­cans get elected, even though par­ti­san­ship has no place on the lo­cal bench.)

Meck­len­burg vot­ers will elect five judges in con­tested races on Nov. 6 – four Dis­trict Court judges and one Su­pe­rior Court judge. Here’s how we see the races.


Eight-year in­cum­bent Dis­trict Court Judge Don­ald Cureton is be­ing chal­lenged by Paulina Havelka. Cureton, a Demo­crat, is widely re­garded as one of the most qual­i­fied judges in Meck­len­burg. In an NC Bar As­so­ci­a­tion sur­vey of lawyers, his scores were higher than any other judge on the Meck­len­burg bal­lot. He leads Meck­len­burg’s youth treat­ment court and is lev­el­headed. Even his op­po­nent says she ad­mires his com­pe­tency and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Havelka, a Repub­li­can, is a pleas­ant per­son who has run un­suc­cess­fully for of­fice mul­ti­ple times. She said she de­cided to run be­cause she saw an op­por­tu­nity when this Repub­li­can-friendly dis­trict was drawn. She is a fine lawyer, but Cureton is the su­pe­rior choice.


Sean Smith, also an eight-year in­cum­bent judge, is be­ing chal­lenged by at­tor­ney Sab­rina Blain, who does fam­ily law and other work. Smith, a Repub­li­can, is widely seen as prickly, un­cor­dial – and as a very com­pe­tent judge. His scores in the Bar As­so­ci­a­tion sur­vey were much higher than Blain’s, which were by far the low­est of any of this year’s Meck­len­burg ju­di­cial can­di­dates.

Smith, a fam­ily court judge, knows the law well and is de­mand­ing of those be­fore him. Blain, a Demo­crat, says she was mo­ti­vated to run against him be­cause she didn’t like the way he treated her in his court­room. She moved shortly be­fore the elec­tion; the Board of Elec­tions and a judge ruled that she did not meet res­i­dency re­quire­ments to run against Smith, but the Court of Ap­peals re­in­stated her.

Smith is the bet­ter choice.


In­cum­bent Dis­trict Court Judge Ali­cia Brooks seeks a sec­ond term and is be­ing chal­lenged by crim­i­nal lawyer Michael Stading. Brooks has been ef­fec­tive, and we be­lieve Stading would be too. We give the nod to Brooks be­cause of her ex­pe­ri­ence and per­for­mance on the bench.

Brooks, a Demo­crat, was a pub­lic de­fender, an as­sis­tant DA who pros­e­cuted homi­cides and a pri­vate-prac­tice lawyer for 14 years be­fore be­ing elected judge in 2014. She is re­spected in the court­house as com­pe­tent and well-rounded. She made a cam­paign fi­nance re­port­ing mis­take in 2014 but worked with the Board of Elec­tions to make things right.

Stading, a Repub­li­can, is seen as a strong crim­i­nal lawyer. A for­mer as­sis­tant DA who now does crim­i­nal de­fense work in pri­vate prac­tice, he has earned his spe­cial­ist cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in crim­i­nal law. He has ar­gued be­fore dozens of ju­ries and is said to al­ways be well-pre­pared.


Democrats Karen McCallum and Khalif Rhodes are bat­tling to re­place out­go­ing judge Becky Tin. We be­lieve McCallum is the bet­ter choice.

An Army vet­eran, she is a se­nior pros­e­cu­tor in the DA’s of­fice and has won the en­dorse­ment of her boss, DA Spencer Mer­ri­weather. Ear­lier, she was an ef­fec­tive pub­lic de­fender. McCallum has a firm grasp of the law and how to run an ef­fi­cient court­room.

Rhodes is Meck­len­burg’s chief mag­is­trate. He has many fans in Meck­len­burg le­gal cir­cles, and we think he is pas­sion­ate and com­pe­tent. We are con­cerned, though, by how he and his of­fice treat peo­ple ac­cused of vi­o­lent crimes. Fre­quently, Rhodes merely is­sues sum­mons to such de­fen­dants rather than ar­rest­ing them and hold­ing them in cus­tody un­der bond. We sup­port bond re­form but be­lieve Rhodes goes too far. It also gives us pause that the state board of elec­tions shut down his cam­paign for a few months for fail­ure to file cer­tain re­ports, and he was guilty of fail­ing to file a tax re­turn in Penn­syl­va­nia years ago.


Democrats Reg­gie McKnight and Howard Clark and Repub­li­can Ge­orge Bell vie for an open Su­pe­rior Court seat.

Of the three, McKnight has the most court­room ex­pe­ri­ence and by far the most ex­pe­ri­ence in Su­pe­rior Court. He han­dles com­plex crim­i­nal lit­i­ga­tion and has been named to the cap­i­tal de­fender list, a se­lect group of lawyers qual­i­fied to rep­re­sent first-de­gree mur­der de­fen­dants who can’t af­ford their own at­tor­ney.

Bell was a gen­er­al­ist who now does mostly crim­i­nal work. He is an ef­fec­tive lawyer, but ac­knowl­edges that he does most of his work in dis­trict court and that McKnight has more ex­pe­ri­ence in su­pe­rior court. He ar­gues, though, that he has more ex­pe­ri­ence in civil law.

Clark, a for­mer so­cial stud­ies teacher, has been a lawyer for about seven years, work­ing as a pub­lic de­fender.

We be­lieve McKnight is the strong­est choice.

Don­ald Cureton

Karen McCallum

Sean Smith

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