Passing Judgment: A word with the 28th District Court candidates

In the May 6 primary, two of the three candidates for district court judge will move on to the fall election.

28th District Court Judge Ed Clontz faces two seasoned opponents: J. Matthew Martin, a former associate judge in the Tribal Court in Cherokee, and Thomas Amburgey, a Buncombe County assistant district attorney.

Clontz, a graduate of Southern Illinois University’s law school, was appointed to the court in 2011. All of the positions he’s held over the years are ones he was personally asked to take on. “My whole career has been on service. People have sought me out, and that means a lot to me,” he explains. “I’m a district court judge; that’s what I do. My life experiences give me the ability to do this job and do it well.”

Martin, born and raised in Asheville, is an attorney in private practice and an adjunct professor at the UNC and Elon University law schools. “I have a heart for this job,” he says. “I love people. I love, particularly, lawyers, and I believe that the judge can be an agent of change in district court. I believe that we can achieve the goal of helping individuals exit the system successfully.”

Amburgey has worked as an assistant district attorney since he graduated from the Appalachian School of Law in 2007. During that time, he’s resolved more than 400 cases annually and has 200 currently pending. “I don’t believe in judges who rule by fear and intimidation,” he says. “A toxic environment accomplishes nothing. I believe in work ethic. When the robe comes off my shoulders, my day is not over. … I don’t know everything there is to know, but I will be humble enough to recognize that.”

During an April 11 debate moderated by retired Judge Gary Cash, each candidate was given one minute to answer the questions and respond to their opponents’ answers.

For the full audio of this debate, go to

What interest and ability do you have in handling family with juvenile law matters if you are assigned to one of those groups?

Clontz: “Just like every court I’ve been in, you have to start at the foundation, and you work your way up until you get confident in doing that particular job. … You study. You learn through experience.”

Martin: “I have enormous experience in family and juvenile law. … I love juvenile court because you can really make a difference in the lives of human beings, and as your judge, I will strive to do that within the law on a daily basis.”

Amburgey: “My background is in juveniles. … I’ve never worked a family law case, but …. my trial experience, my familiarization with how trials work, the flow of the courtroom, the rules of evidence — that’s the hard part of being a trial attorney. That translates well into any courtroom.”

What policies or practices, if any, could improve the disposition of persons repeatedly convicted of being intoxicated and disruptive?

Clontz: “A lot of these people know it’s a game. They get out, and they intentionally get arrested again — because that’s where they can get a meal, and they can get a warm place to sleep. And we have to understand that. … I try to help them with what they’re going through.”

Martin: “The best way [is to]  have specialized courts where these individuals can be sorted out so we can identify their substance abuse issues … and drive them into treatment modalities, which we can use to get outcomes for them that don’t result in them coming back into the system.”

Amburgey: “[The] intoxicated and disruptive [charge] isn’t about holding people accountable. … They need help. We can’t force help on them, unfortunately. They have to want it too. Our court system needs to do a better job of giving individuals help that want it.”

What do you see as the greatest challenges currently in domestic violence court?

Clontz: “Truly the greatest challenge in domestic violence is understanding the people before you. … Unfortunately we see a lot of cases where it’s some sort of revenge based upon  something that has no merit. And those cases clog up the system so we can’t address the cases that need to be addressed most.”

Martin: “The greatest problem is identifying the … factors in any individual domestic violence case. … One great way to do this, that we implemented in Cherokee, [is] the integrative domestic violence model, which involves having the civil protective order cases on the same day as the criminal cases. … Everybody gets more information.”

Amburgey: “The hardest thing to do sometimes, is for a spouse to come in and say, ‘I love him. I just want to have this dismissed.’ It’s a difficult situation … to say, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ … Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. Not everyone knows what they need.”

Currently under North Carolina domestic violence law,  defendants are allowed to enter temporary custody orders for certain durations of time. What is your position regarding that practice, and do you have a parameter or limits on those custody orders?

Clontz: “You have to look deep into those cases, determine what is the underlying reason. … We want to make sure what we do is in the best interest of the child. … I try to limit about six months, because that’s plenty of time for the litigants to get an action filed in family court.”

Martin: “The law is well-considered in terms of being used to remove children from an immediate, violent situation. … It’s very effective at protecting children. But the court has to be vigilant, because the court has to look at not only the interest of the child, but the interest of both parents as well.”

Amburgey: “As an assistant DA, [I’ve had] to sit there and talk to them. … That’s a skill that will assist me in emergency matters. [We are] making sure that when you’re going to do something ex parte, without the other party even being there, that you’re certain it’s the right thing to do for a temporary basis.”

Why should voters elect you for this position, and what, if any, political aspirations do you have beyond being elected district court judge?

Clontz: “I didn’t seek it out. I was asked. My whole career has been on service. People have sought me out, and that means a lot to me. Do I have any aspirations? I’m a district court judge. That’s what I do. My life experiences give me the ability to do this job and do it well.”

Martin: “I have a heart for this job. I love people. I love, particularly, lawyers… The judge can be an agent of change in district court. I believe that we can achieve the goal in district court that we help individuals exit the system successfully. [It’s] the best place that you can impact individual human beings in a positive way.”

Amburgey: “If you’re looking for a stepping stone, I don’t think district court is the best place to look. … Professionalism is very important. I don’t believe in judges who rule by fear and intimidation. A toxic environment accomplishes nothing. I believe in work ethic. When the robe comes off, my day is not over.”


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About Hayley Benton
Current freelance journalist and artist. Former culture/entertainment reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times and former news reporter at Mountain Xpress. Also a coffee drinker, bad photographer, teller of stupid jokes and maker-upper of words. I can be reached at hayleyebenton [at] Follow me @HayleyTweeet

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