Thinning the herd

When Buncombe County Chief District Court Judge Earl J. Fowler Jr. announced his impending retirement last year, interest in the four-year seat surged.

Six candidates jumped into the fray, hashing it out in the nonpartisan September primary. The two highest vote-getters — Patricia A. Kaufmann and Roger T. Smith — will face off in the general election on Nov. 5.

Buncombe County voters will also decide another District Court race, involving incumbent Shirley Brown and challenger Susan Wilson (see “A Race to Remember” elsewhere in this issue). Two other District Court judges are already home free: Rebecca Knight and Peter L. Roda faced no opposition for their seats.

Though Superior Court cases grab headlines, District Court judges affect more people. The decisions they make range from divvying up marital property to awarding child custody and 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.

Traditionally, District Court races have been partisan affairs. But no more: The General Assembly changed the law last year, making these contests nonpartisan across the state.

Are you experienced?

Both candidates say their experience sets them apart.

A 1994 law-school graduate, Kaufmann notes that she has eight years’ experience in the kinds of cases handled in District Court, including child custody, divorce and criminal matters. And though she’s in private practice now, Kaufmann says the daily courtroom experience she gained as an assistant public defender in Buncombe County would stand her in particularly good stead as a District Court judge.

“You get a lot more in-depth experience [as a public defender] than [as] a private attorney who goes in and does one or two cases and leaves,” offers Kaufmann, noting that she handled thousands of cases in her tenure in the public defender’s office. “I think you see things more extensively … You’re going to learn things that other people don’t have an opportunity to see.”

District Court judges need to be able to manage a heavy caseload, she adds, and she’s gained valuable experience on that front, as well through her work in the public defender’s office.

Although Kaufmann says she would never devalue the number of years that someone has practiced law, she adds: “Experience comes in many forms … and age and number of years are single variables, but [they’re] not the total picture.”

Aside from experience, Kaufmann says she has other strengths that would make her well-suited for judicial work, including a good temperament and a willingness to work hard.

“I believe I have a reputation for being honest and fair and having integrity,” she offers.

Acting like a judge

Smith, who graduated from law school in 1979, points to his 23 years of experience as a private attorney practicing in District Court. During that time, the candidate served several years ago as an arbitrator during a pilot program in Buncombe County, he notes. (The program ran for about 15 months in 1998 and ’99, says local Trial Court Administrator Marc Shimberg.)

“I think it’s very significant because an arbitrator acts like a judge,” posits Smith. “You’re not a judge, but you’re acting just like a judge when you’re doing arbitrations. So having that experience puts me in … [the] position of having made decisions in contested cases.”

Smith says there are other important differences between himself and his opponent:

“I’ve lived here most of my life and worked here all of my life as a solo practitioner, business owner and, most importantly, as an active participant in the community, having been involved in civic activities, civic clubs and government commissions.”

Smith, who’s married and has a 20-year-old stepdaughter, a 16-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, says his personal experience of living in a blended family would give him insight into the many family cases that District Court judges handle. (However, he allowed last week that since Kaufmann was slated to get married on Saturday, Oct. 19, Smith could only hold onto the marriage distinction for a few more days.)

“The job is probably going to pay less than I’m making in my private practice,” reveals Smith, “and people have asked me why I want to ditch all that and become a judge.”

The answer? “I want to help the community by serving them in this role, which I feel well-qualified for,” he replies.

Fixing a broken system

When asked what they think is wrong with the criminal justice system — if anything — the two candidates reveal other differences.

“Right now, what’s wrong with it is it’s not being adequately funded,” Smith declares. “That’s the biggest problem, because it cuts down on our resources for alternative sentences. It cuts down on our ability to administer the law. We’re using out-of-date computer technology — all kinds of things like that just make it impossible, almost, to run efficiently.”

So what would Smith do as a District Court judge to fix that problem? “There’s not a whole lot I could do except lobby the legislature to increase the percentage of the budget that goes into the judiciary,” he offers.

Kaufmann says that the “tremendous number of cases” in the criminal and traffic courts burdens the system. Addressing that, however, would require alternatives to be in place; one option, she suggests, might be a District Court drug-treatment court — similar to others across the state and to the Superior Court one in place locally — aimed at breaking the criminal cycle by getting substance abusers into treatment. In the Superior Court program, depending on the case, people who can prove sobriety for a year may have a criminal charge reduced or deferred (with no conviction), she says.

“Everything that happens in District Court has to be a coordinated effort with the District Attorney’s Office, with law enforcement, with other attorneys,” observes Kaufmann. “So if everybody were to work together to make those referrals early in the process, that would alleviate the caseload.”

As a District Court judge, “you can encourage people to take that route, and make referrals,” she says, though with state budget cuts, she’s not sure whether a District Court drug-treatment court would get off the ground.

Happily for voters, both candidates appear to take the responsibilities of the job they’re seeking seriously.

Kaufmann notes that by the time a judge gets involved in personal family matters such as child-custody decisions, that particular family is in crisis.

“The judge needs to always keep in perspective the decisions that [he or she is] making, and how it’s going to impact an entire family and the future of that family,” she says.

Smith notes that more people who go to court wind up in front of District Court judges than facing any other type of judge.

“If you’re ever going to see a judge, it’s probably going to be a District Court judge,” he adds.

District Court lowdown

What do District Court judges do, anyway? Here’s a rundown of many of the different types of cases they referee:

* Child custody (between parents);

* Child abuse, neglect or dependency (involving the Department of Social Services);

* Child support;

* Contract disputes (involving less than $10,000);

* Domestic violence;

* Divorce and equitable distribution;

* Juvenile delinquency;

* Involuntary commitments;

* Misdemeanor offenses such as simple assault;

* Motor-vehicle negligence (involving less than $10,000);

* Preliminary settings for felonies (first appearances and probable-cause hearings); and

* Traffic tickets (mostly in night court).

Patricia A. Kaufmann

Age: 36

Home: Asheville

Education: law degree, Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Lansing, Mich. (1994); bachelor of arts in communications, State University of New York at Buffalo (1989); associate degree in business, Endicott College, Beverly, Mass. (1986).

Party: Democratic

Years in the community: Six

How much money do you plan to spend on the race? Her current estimate is just less than $30,000.

Endorsements: N.C. Association of Women Attorneys

Legal experience: She worked for three years 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 a Waynesville law firm, followed by four years in the Buncombe County Office of the Public Defender. Since April 2001, she’s been an associate at Asheville law firm Cogburn, Goosmann, Brazil & Rose. Kaufmann notes that her experience covers all areas of the law found in District Court. She now has a general practice with a strong concentration in criminal District Court, as well as personal injury, contract disputes and family-law matters.

What are you most proud of in your legal career? “Representing the people of Buncombe County who were indigent and in need of assistance at a very difficult time in their [lives] — and that in representing them [at] that time, I’ve had an effect on their lives. I’ve been told by many people that how I dealt with them and how I treated them changed their lives.”

Roger T. Smith

Age: 48

Home: Asheville

Education: law degree, Pepperdine University School of Law, Malibu, Calif. (1979); bachelor of arts in political sciences, UNC-Chapel Hill (1976); trained as an arbitrator for the Better Business Bureau and District Court system.

Party: Democratic

Years in the community: 40

How much money do you plan to spend on the race? Probably $30,000-$40,000.

Endorsements: None

Legal experience: Smith has been a trial attorney in Buncombe County — mainly in District Court — since 1979. He began as an associate with Lentz & Ball, then opened his own law office in 1981. He concentrates on family and criminal law, though he also handles a variety of civil cases, plus those in juvenile court.

What are you most proud of in your legal career? His 2002 Outstanding Service Award from the 28th Judicial District Bar and Pisgah Legal Services, as well as being nominated for the N.C. Bar Association’s Pro Bono Service Award. He’s done free legal work for Pisgah Legal Services for 23 years.

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