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Vote wisely in N.C. appellate court races

By Rhoda Billings and Alan Duncan

Special to the Salisbury Post

Nov. 4, 2014, is an historic day in North Carolina history.

On that day, our state’s citizens will elect four justices — a majority of our state’s Supreme Court, the top tier of a co-equal branch of government. We depend on the Supreme Court to interpret our laws, to resolve our disputes, and to determine the liberty or incarceration of those charged with violating the law.

There are eight candidates for these four seats.

How many of us know their identity or backgrounds or what commends them for service on our highest state court?

Recent polls do not give a promising answer to any of these questions. The common denominator of every poll indicates strikingly low knowledge about and attention to these races. In late September, one poll indicated that, even in the chief justice’s race, 77 percent were “undecided.”

There are also three contested races for the Court of Appeals and 39 contested races for seats on the Superior Court and District Court, including one District Court race in Rowan County.

Fortunately, voters can access evaluations of trial court candidates who filed for office in February at ElectNCJudges.org. This information is provided by the North Carolina Bar Association’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee through its surveys of N.C. lawyers.

We don’t believe that our citizens are either indifferent to these races or to the significance of the judiciary to our democracy. Rather we believe that our busy lives make it difficult to find the time to learn what needs to be learned to choose the best candidates for these positions.

Taking into account all the candidates who will be on the ballot Nov. 4, many of our citizens will have “run out of bandwidth” when they reach the judicial elections.

The North Carolina Bar Association has sponsored a series of forums to inform the public about the statewide races. All of those seeking election to the Supreme Court appeared at WUNC-TV in August to answer questions relevant to their service in the judiciary.

Likewise, for two of the three contested Court of Appeals races, the four candidates participated in similar debates.

Citizens in our state can view these debates on YouTube now: see “UNC-TV 2014 Judicial Forums.”

We encourage you to watch these forums, perhaps with your family, to begin to learn what you need to know to make such an important decision.

We wish every citizen could spend an hour or two in one of our state’s domestic-violence courtrooms, attend a child custody hearing, or listen to a judge instruct a jury about to decide whether someone goes to jail. Nothing leaves such a vivid impression of the authority we give our judges. Yet when we vote for them, we hardly know their names.

Former N.C. Chief Justice Rhoda Billings and Alan Duncan are past presidents of the North Carolina Bar Association. They currently co-chair the NCBA’s Open Courts Initiative.

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