A race to remember

The contest between incumbent District Court Judge Shirley Brown and challenger Susan Wilson will probably be talked about for years to come.

Brown, who’s been on the bench since 1990, faces Weaverville attorney Wilson in the Nov. 5 general election. The race is nonpartisan, though both are registered Democrats.

The very fact that the race is contested at all is a bit unusual; sitting judges are frequently re-elected without opposition. But Wilson’s supporters have mounted a vigorous challenge, taking issue with Brown’s handling of five specific cases over the years — some of which were cited in three complaints (two currently pending) filed with the Judicial Standards Commission, the state agency that weighs accusations of misconduct by judges. Muddying the waters is the secrecy surrounding the complaints and the fact that one of them was filed by Wilson’s campaign treasurer, according to both candidates (see “Critics take aim at Judge Brown” elsewhere in this issue).

And while judicial elections are usually subdued affairs (largely because of the state code governing judges’ conduct), the gloves have come off in this race. Brown says the complaint against her was politically motivated, a charge Wilson emphatically denies.

Wilson’s candidacy also marks the first time political observers can recall an openly gay candidate making a bid for local office in Buncombe County.

The Brown/Wilson face-off is one of two contested District Court races to be decided Nov. 5. Patricia A. Kaufmann and Roger T. Smith are vying for the seat of retiring Chief District Judge Earl J. Fowler Jr. (see “Thinning the herd” elsewhere in this issue). District Court judges Rebecca Knight and Peter L. Roda are unopposed.

District Court races don’t generally attract much public attention outside the courthouse. But these judges have profound effects on ordinary peoples’ lives: The decisions they make range from divvying up marital property to awarding child custody to determining guilt in misdemeanor criminal cases, such as shoplifting or drunk driving. The base pay for a District Court judge is $91,909, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

“More experience”

“I have a lot more experience than my opponent,” asserts Brown. “Her experience in the court system has been limited almost exclusively to the child-support-enforcement agency and dealing with that one narrow issue.”

After graduating from law school in 1979, Brown notes that she worked as a special counsel at a state mental hospital (representing patients) until she was hired as Buncombe County’s first woman prosecutor in 1981. She spent more than five years in the District Attorney’s Office (the last three as chief prosecutor) and then left to work for a private law firm in Asheville. At two local firms, she worked in the District and Superior courts on civil, criminal, family and juvenile cases for nearly four years before being elected to the bench, she notes. She’s been a District Court judge for nearly 12 years.

“I truly believe that with my experience and my background, that I make a true difference in the court system,” Brown declares. “I care about the people, and I do a good job.”

Attorney Joel Stevenson says Brown’s strengths include her experience, intelligence and ability to follow complex arguments. Describing the candidate as a strict-sentencing judge, Stevenson says Brown runs an efficient courtroom in part because she doesn’t tolerate lawyers who aren’t prepared.

“She’s bright, she’s experienced and she wants to do the right thing,” he declares.

“More energetic”

Wilson graduated from law school in 1991, then worked in her own law practice in Black Mountain for six months in 1992, practicing criminal, juvenile and family law. From there, she went on to work for the Buncombe County Department of Social Services as primary child-support-enforcement attorney and secondary juvenile/adult services attorney. When Buncombe County decided to contract out its child-support enforcement to Policy Studies Inc., Wilson worked at that company as a child-support-enforcement attorney until resigning in April to run for judge.

Wilson says her desire to improve the court system is what sets her apart from her opponent. As judge, she says she’d like to help eliminate the revolving door of crime by guiding people who are willing to change toward help — such as drug-treatment or literacy programs. She’d also like to collaborate with other District Court judges who are participating in a budding “family court” system in which one judge hears all of the cases related to a particular family, to boost efficiency. Wilson says she wants to work on moving cases through the system more effectively.

“I think I’m just more energetic and have new ideas … specifically about tackling the issues I’ve just described,” says Wilson.

Asheville attorney Johanna Finkelstein says Wilson fits the qualities she thinks a good judge should possess.

“I think she’s very smart and very knowledgeable about the law,” she suggests. “I definitely think she’s open-minded. She is always willing to listen to other views, to take them seriously and to give due consideration to every opinion.”

Finkelstein also says Wilson’s caring nature would allow people to maintain their dignity in the courtroom, adding: “I think she would really give each person the respect they deserve regardless of who they are — whether they’re a criminal defendant or a victim in the case, whether they’re the abused person or the one that did the abusing.”

A battle royal

Ever since the Asheville Citizen-Times reported on one of the pending complaints against Brown back in April, the judge says she’s felt frustrated by the resulting publicity. At the time, Brown confirmed that the State Bureau of Investigation was looking into the matter (which is standard procedure for commission investigations), though she didn’t discuss the substance of the complaint.

“The talk of the SBI doing the investigation gives the impression that it’s something criminal, and that is entirely not the case,” stresses local attorney Bill Anderson, who is Brown’s campaign treasurer.

The Citizen-Times story didn’t say who’d filed the complaint, though Brown told Xpress earlier this month that it was Asheville attorney Cecilia Johnson. (Johnson says she’s not allowed to comment on any investigation, citing state law governing the Judicial Standards Commission.)

Brown maintains that it’s strictly an ugly campaign ploy. “I feel like once it’s been really looked at, they’ll see it’s been politically motivated and that’s all there is to it … politically motivated and a sleazy way to run a campaign, in my opinion,” the judge declares.

Wilson counters that if she’d made the accusations a part of her campaign, it might indeed be considered sleazy. But “It’s not been a part of my campaign,” she says. “And two, the allegations were made by other people, several other people not involved in my campaign. And my understanding is, the allegations are true.”

Brown also charges that her opponent resorted to negative campaigning because of her relative lack of District Court experience.

Unlike Johnson, Wilson carefully avoids directly criticizing Brown by name — though her campaign literature does stress the importance of “getting orders to the parties as soon as possible.” Although delayed orders could be a problem with other judges, Wilson says she’s only heard about them in connection with Brown. Wilson adds that her 10 years of experience in District Court have given her a good background, particularly with family court cases involving child abuse, neglect and child support.

But Brown says she remains suspicious of the timing of the formal complaint, which she puts at late December or early January — shortly before the election filing period opened. Wilson, however, says Johnson’s complaint was made before the candidate even decided to run for office.

“I had no idea … at the time I first talked about running that those allegations had been made,” Wilson insists.

After she decided to run, however, Wilson says she learned about the allegations from Johnson — who agreed to be her campaign treasurer “because Judge Brown was already mad at her,” Wilson reports.

Why was Brown mad? “Because she knew Cecilia had already made those allegations,” says Wilson.

“What’s interesting is whatever [commission members] find is something that would be good for voters to know prior to going in and electing a judge,” observes Wilson.

It seems fairly unlikely, however, that the Judicial Standards Commission will rule before Nov. 5 — though Brown says she’s called the commission’s office about five times to check on the status of the case and ask for a resolution. The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 8 — three days after the election, says Deborah Carrington, the commission’s executive secretary.

If, after investigating the case, the commission finds sufficient evidence to go forward, the next step would be instituting formal proceedings against Brown. Only then would the complaint become a matter of public record, Carrington says. After several more steps, including a hearing, the commission would make a recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which can censure or remove a judge from office.

So far this year, 191 complaints have been filed against judges; only one of those cases (involving a Wake County Superior Court judge) has reached the formal-proceedings stage, said Carrington. About 85 percent of the complaints filed are dismissed without an investigation, because they’re unfounded or concern issues other than judicial misconduct, she says.

Voters, meanwhile, are left to judge the judges — weighing the charges, considering the available evidence, and then casting their votes.

Shirley Brown

Age: 52

Home: Riceville area

Education: law degree, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law (1979); bachelor of arts in pre-law, UNC-Chapel Hill (1977).

Party: Democratic

Years in the community: 21

How much money do you plan to spend on the race? Probably $10,000, depending on what her opponent spends.

Endorsements:None (didn’t seek any)

Tidbit: owns a horse named Goldie.

What’s the most important quality for a District Court judge to have? “I think there’s not just one important quality,” Brown says, listing fairness, decisiveness, patience, consideration for others, moral courage and a good understanding of human nature.

How would you rate yourself in that category? “I think when I first came on the bench, I had very little patience. I think over the years I have developed that attribute to where it needs to be.” Brown feels she displays those other qualities as well.

Susan Wilson

Age: 45

Home: Weaverville

Education: law degree, University of Georgia (1991); master’s degree in journalism, Georgia (1984); bachelor’s degree in humanities, Emory University (1979).

Party: Democratic

Years in the community: 11

How much money do you plan to spend on the race? about $30,000

Endorsements: N.C. Association of Women Attorneys

Tidbit: once worked as a college textbook publisher’s rep.

What’s the most important quality for a District Court judge to have? “A sense of responsibility and a sense of integrity.”

How would you rate yourself in that category? ? “I’d say probably a 9 out of 10.”

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