Getting to the Bottom of the Ballot
By Nancy Black Norelli
In North Carolina, as in 31 other states, many trial judges will be running in contested elections in November. In a noisy election season, the contested races for trial court judge often receive little attention from the media or the electorate. By admission, many voters cast the ballot for judge based on party affiliation, name recognition, ballot position or simply “skip it.” A recent poll in Indiana reported that two-thirds of respondents “almost always” skip voting for judges while more than half indicated they do so because they do not have enough information.
By contrast, the importance of good and excellent judges in our District and Superior Courts cannot be minimized. To appreciate the importance of these races – usually found at the bottom of the ballot – a brief overview of what these judges actually do may prove helpful.
What do trial court judges actually do?
The District Court can best be described as the “peoples court.” Indeed, some civil cases might resemble those on Judge Judy’s TV docket. Defendants from all backgrounds and stages of life crowd the criminal daily dockets – perhaps 75 to 100 in each metropolitan trial courtroom and literally hundreds in the administrative and arraignment courtrooms where bonds are set and inmates appear in some districts, by live video streamed from the county jail.
The sheer caseload can be staggering, but for the people in those courtrooms the crowds fade. Each defendant is concerned about his/her own case. The judge is faced with giving attention to each defendant and moving the docket with speed. Knowledge of the law enables the good judge to move through the dockets, consistently deciding cases, with an appropriate demeanor and temperament to assure a respectful experience for all. The judge actually sits as “judge and jury” in criminal misdemeanor cases, with a “Not Guilty” verdict ending the case while a “Guilty” verdict gives the defendant an automatic right of appeal to Superior Court for a jury trial. A District Court judge in a metropolitan area might handle as many as 5 – 8 “DWI” trials in one week. A carelessly or impatiently rendered “Not Guilty” can put the acquitted defendant back on the highway. A reluctance to acquit can clog dockets and lead to unfavorable impressions of the justice system. A good judge treats each case as both unique and important.
In Family Court, judges determine equitable distribution of assets, alimony, child support and important child custody decisions. Voluminous paperwork includes everything from divorces to ponderous consent orders, to dealing with the transfer of out-of-state orders. Unrepresented parties are numerous and create additional difficulties. The pressure is huge. The stakes are often high in terms of dollars and always high in terms of the well-being of children. The custody case scenarios are endless – from working with thoughtful parents, to dealing with angry or psychologically impaired parents, to working with frightened extended families to devise a custody arrangement for a toddler following the murder/suicide of his parents. Good judges bring knowledge of the law, respect for all and attentiveness.
Juvenile Court is yet another venue where young lives are impacted. Once again the ability to listen patiently and ability to apply the law are critical. The judge must review the recommendations of parents, competing professionals, prosecutors and defense lawyers. The buck stops with the judge. A wrong decision might lead to another violent act putting the community at risk. An ill-conceived plan for the youth might lead to rebellion and further hostility toward the system and others. A good judge will be brave.
District and Superior Court judges handle real estate and contract disputes, personal injury, malpractice, and a multitude of other kinds of civil disputes. A Superior Court judge presides at felony trials, is responsible for making sure that a jury is fairly selected, evidence rules are correctly applied, attorneys do not run afoul of those rules and the jury is instructed correctly on the pertinent law before beginning deliberation. Good judges listen. They know the rules of procedure and evidence.
Trial court judges hold lives in their hands. Any person might intersect with these courts. An underage drinking citation, reckless driving ticket, a college prank, an unfortunate lack of cooperation with a police officer, a careless decision to drive after too many beers, a contract dispute, or a custody battle can land anyone in the trial courtroom. In all these cases, each party wants a good judge.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Black Norelli is a mediator and arbitrator who brings her experience as a District Court Judge in Mecklenburg County to her role as a neutral. Norelli has expertise mediating a wide variety of cases, including, but not limited to business disputes, employment disputes, wrongful death cases, personal injury and matters related to estate family law.