District Court isn’t as glamorous as Superior Court. Fewer high-profile cases play out in the courtrooms of District Court, which generally attract much less public attention.
But the District Court system touches far more people, and the decisions those judges make in family, criminal and civil cases can have significant impacts on ordinary citizens’ lives (see “District Court digest” box).
On Sept. 10, Buncombe County voters will get a chance to decide which two District Court candidates advance to the general election. The base pay for a District Court judge is $91,909, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Chief District Judge Earl J. Fowler Jr. is retiring, leaving his four-year seat up for grabs. As a result, a bumper crop of candidates — five men and one woman — have waded into the fray.
Traditionally, District Court races have been partisan affairs. But no more: The state legislature changed the law last year, making these contests nonpartisan across the state.
On a related note, there’s no primary for another contested seat on the District Court bench. Incumbent Shirley H. Brown and challenger Susan E. Wilson will face off in November’s general election.
Here’s a look at the six candidates competing in Buncombe County’s District Court judicial primary; two of them will advance to the general election.
Education (formal and informal): Law degree, Wake Forest University School of Law (1995); bachelor’s degree, N.C. State University (political science, concentration in criminal justice); two stints at the National Prosecutor Academy.
“I waited tables and bartended for almost 10 years. … It just teaches you to relate to people and talk to pretty much anybody.”
Legal experience: Assistant DA in the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office since 1995. During law school, he worked as an intern at Legal Aid of Western North Carolina in Forsyth County, at the Forsyth County DA’s office, and at the Van Winkle, Buck, Wall, Starnes & Davis law firm in Asheville.
“I’ve handled tens of thousands of cases in every criminal District Court that we have,” reports Hasty, explaining that assistant district attorneys like himself handle 180 or so cases during a typical day in District criminal court, and as many as 600 cases in a night-court session. Hasty also worked in the juvenile, night and domestic-violence courts and has been involved with a couple of involuntary commitments. He estimates he’s prosecuted between 1,500 and 2,000 District Court trials and more than 100 Superior Court trials, including three death-penalty cases. And though he concedes that he doesn’t have much experience in civil cases, Hasty contends that he can research issues in civil law just as he’s done when something unusual comes up in criminal law.
Years in the community: Seven
Tidbit: Serves as an instructor for OUR VOICE volunteers, who help victims of sexual assault.
How much money do you plan to spend on the race? $10,000
Why do you want to be a District Court judge? “I want to be able to make decisions that favorably affect the community that I live in. I chose the job of a prosecutor over the higher-paying job in a civil firm because I wanted to be in public service. … I feel that I have enough experience now, and I want to stay in public service. … And I believe that the experience I have in the DA’s office leads perfectly into the position of a District Court judge.”
How much District Court work have you done? “More than all of the other candidates combined. … When you’re the prosecutor … in a District Court, you’re responsible for prosecuting every single case on the calendar, every single day. … It’s just a matter of sheer volume.”
What sets you apart from your opponents? “What is the first thing that you want out of a District Court judge? You want [someone] who will seek justice and who will follow the law, and as a prosecutor — the only prosecutor in the race … my ethical obligation has been just that: to seek justice in every case.”
“None of my opponents have done that. Their obligation is not to seek justice but to protect the rights of their clients,” declares Hasty, insisting that he doesn’t intend to demean the role of a defense attorney.
What’s the most important quality for a District Court judge to have? “I would say good exercise of discretion. … You want a District Court judge who is fair, who will follow the law and exercise good discretion.”
How would you rate yourself in that category? “Pretty high, because I practice it so much,” he says.
What’s the most compelling part of a District Court judge’s work for you? “Family court, juvenile court and criminal court are probably the three most important areas. Because that’s where you make the decisions that really affect people’s lives to the greatest extent.”
Education (formal and informal): Law degree from N.C. Central University School of Law (1994); bachelor of science in social work from Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. Joined the Army to pay for law school, serving as a supply specialist for two years (“It was quite an education,” notes Hill) while taking classes through the University of Maryland at Wiesbaden, Germany.
Legal experience: Worked for nearly a year at a small law firm in Durham, N.C., headed by Clarence C. “Buddy” Malone, the late civil-rights lawyer. Since 1995, Hill has worked in the Buncombe County Office of the Public Defender.
Years in the community: Seven
Tidbit: Hill is one of two candidates in the primary endorsed by the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys. He also once worked as a drug-and-alcohol counselor.
How much money do you plan to spend on the race? About $10,000.
Why do you want to be a District Court judge? “One of the major reasons is, I feel I have a contribution to make in District Court.”
All kinds of people with all kinds of problems go through the system, notes Hill, adding: “Everybody who comes through here doesn’t have to just be thrown in jail. … There are other alternatives.”
Through his experience, Hill says he can sort out those alternatives. Though he enjoys his current job, he sees it as a natural progression to move on to the District Court bench.
How much District Court work have you done? About three years’ worth.
What sets you apart from your opponents? Community involvement, he says, noting, “From the time I came here to Asheville, I have been involved in a lot of different programs.”
Those activities include stints on the following governing boards: the YMCA, Women at Risk (which provides counseling for women at risk of going to prison) and Life on Life’s Terms (a substance-abuse treatment program). Hill will also serve as chairman of next year’s Bele Chere Committee.
“I think a judge needs to be a part of a community — not just someone who sits in judgment. … I’ve been active in this community since I got here, and I think that’s important.”
What’s the most important quality for a District Court judge to have? “Temperament … you need somebody who can have a pretty level and cool head. … A judge should be able to keep things to a point that you don’t need a bailiff. … If you get to a point where a bailiff has to be involved, it’s just past where it should have been.”
How would you rate yourself in that category? “I would say excellent. I think everybody who knows me knows that my temperament is just perfectly suited for a role of a judge. I’m just not a very excitable person. And I think 10 of 10 lawyers who know me in this city would say that.”
What’s the most compelling part of a District Court judge’s work for you? “I think one of the more compelling areas will be where you are dealing with custody cases and equitable distribution — those cases that involve families. Those cases — I won’t say they’re more important than other kinds of cases — but certainly those are cases that involve more thought, more time and more attention than other kinds of cases.”
Patricia A. Kaufmann
Education (formal and informal): Law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Lansing, Mich. (1994); bachelor of arts in communications, State University of New York at Buffalo; associate degree in business, Endicott College, Beverly, Mass.
Legal experience: She worked for more than a year at a law firm in Michigan, first as a law clerk, then as an attorney. After moving to North Carolina in 1996, she worked for about a year as an associate in Russell McLean’s law firm in Waynesville, followed by four years in the Buncombe County Office of the Public Defender. Since April 2001, she’s been an associate at the Asheville law firm of Cogburn, Goosmann, Brazil & Rose. Her experience covers family, criminal and civil law, as well as involuntary commitments and juvenile proceedings. Kaufmann now has a general practice with a strong concentration in personal injury litigation and criminal defense in District and Superior courts.
Years in the community: Six
Tidbit: Kaufmann decided to go to law school after working as a paralegal for two years. “I got tired of doing all the work and handing the file to the attorney as he walked in the courtroom,” she recalls. “So I thought, I’m just going to do it myself.” She’s also one of two candidates in the primary endorsed by the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys.
How much money do you plan to spend on the race? So far, she’s spent just under $10,000.
Why do you want to be a District Court judge? “I think because I have the experience and the knowledge. And I think when you do something every day — like in many other professions — you see what works and doesn’t work, what can be done differently, what is effective, how to effectively resolve cases. … I think I have the right temperament and demeanor to be able to hear cases that affect the lives of others in a manner that’s impartial and fair.”
How much District Court work have you done? Six years’ worth.
What sets you apart from your opponents? “I don’t want to emphasize that I’m the only woman — obviously that’s a given. … I have experience in both civil and criminal, and I have spent nearly almost every single working day working in District Court — the very courtroom I would be presiding over. I think I have a diverse background.”
Experience in Superior Court and with death-penalty cases is all well and good, she maintains, but it bears no relation to District Court.
What’s the most important quality for a District Court judge to have? “I think the most important quality for our system to work fairly is for that judge to be fair and impartial, to stand not with alliance for either side,” Kaufmann suggests. A judge, she says, needs to “have an independent viewpoint and judge the case on a fact basis alone.”
How would you rate yourself in that category? “I think because I have the experience of representing both sides that I have proven myself that I can be very capable of doing that — that I can be impartial and fair to both sides.”
What’s the most compelling part of a District Court judge’s work for you? “I think if you maintain the understanding and comprehension that your decision affects people, then all of the matters are compelling.”
Education (formal and informal): Law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law (1973); bachelor of arts in political science (minor in economics) from UNC-Chapel Hill; Phillips Academy prep school in Andover, Mass. In addition, Neal graduated from the Air Force Officers Academy, the FBI Special Agent Academy, the Portland (Oregon) Bureau of Police Academy and the Drug Enforcement Administration Academy. He’s also an Air Force veteran, having served as a captain in the JAG Corps.
Legal experience: After a job at the National Association of Attorneys General and a stint at a law firm in Marion, Neal took a detour into law enforcement. He worked as a police officer/attorney in Portland, Ore., followed by two years as an FBI special agent in Portland and Los Angeles.
In 1980, Neal returned to WNC to work as an assistant district attorney in the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office. Since 1990, he’s maintained a solo practice. Neal now works mostly as a criminal defense lawyer, though he’s also practiced domestic and real-estate law.
Years in the community: Neal was born in Asheville and grew up in Marion; after years away, he returned to WNC in 1980.