A new survey by the N.C. Bar Association rates the performance of local judges, shedding light on elected officials that are often hard for voters to evaluate. Judge Ed Clontz received the lowest scores of any Buncombe County District Court justice. And he’s the only incumbent facing a fight to keep his seat on the bench.
The survey asked local attorneys to evaluate the District Court judges on a range of factors, such as overall performance, legal ability and administrative skills (see chart above). Participating attorneys were granted anonymity, which allowed them to provide honest answers without fear of retaliation from the judges they regularly present cases to. More than 100 of them provided responses to nearly all of the questions.
The idea behind the effort is to provide information about the candidates from those who know them the best, says Charles Burgin, a retired Marion lawyer who serves on the N.C. Bar Association committee that produced the survey.
“One of the real problems with the election of judges … is that generally the public does not know who the candidates are,” says Burgin. “How in the world do you vote for a judge if you don’t know what kind of person they are? If you don’t know if they have any legal ability whatsoever, you don’t vote for them in an informed fashion. So this is an effort to cure that.”
Buncombe County’s District Court judges are charged with dealing with a wide range of important matters, from property disputes to domestic relations. Nearly all local misdemeanor cases fall under their jurisdiction, as well as probable cause hearings in felony cases. And judging by lawyers’ responses in the survey, three of the five incumbents are performing below state averages in every category: Judges Susan Dotson-Smith, Patricia Kaufmann Young and Clontz.
Judge Julie Kepple received the highest marks, followed by Judge Ward Scott. Both earned scores that exceed state averages in every category.
While all five are up for re-election, Clontz is the only incumbent drawing opposition this year. Formerly an Asheville attorney, Clontz was appointed by then-Gov. Bev Perdue in 2011 to fulfill the term of Sharon Barrett, who left the seat in order to accept a job on the Superior Court. Clontz was previously Buncombe County’s chief assistant clerk of Superior Court, and prior to that, he was assistant clerk and magistrate.
Clontz faces a primary challenge from two local attorneys: J. Matthew Martin and Thomas Amburgey. Martin previously served as associate judge of the Cherokee Court, the tribal court for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Amburgey has worked as a prosecutor for the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office since 2007.
All three candidates will vie for a four-year term on the bench. The top-two vote-getters in the May 6 primary will move on to battle in the Nov. 4 general election. Like all judicial elections in North Carolina, the race is nonpartisan.
Burgin says his committee is currently exploring how to provide voters with information on the challengers. At the very least, the N.C. Bar Association will put out another report before Election Day with “biographical information” about them, he says. The nonprofit educational organization is also hoping to release a survey in April evaluating Superior Court justices across the state.
“I think the public does care about having the best judges we can get,” says Burgin.
To see how judges in the rest of North Carolina were ranked see the entire survey here.