News & Observer –
Published Fri, Jan 06, 2012

Judicial panel irks N.C. Republicans


RALEIGH Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has named a panel to help screen judicial candidates, but Republicans immediately criticized it as being too laden with partisan Democrats.

The governor named an 18-member commission, including two people who have served as her lawyers, to advise her on whom to appoint to the bench. The commission will forward three names for the governor to choose from for each vacancy on the N.C. Supreme Court, the N.C. Court of Appeals and Superior Court.

In announcing the creation of the commission last April, Perdue said the Judicial Nominating Commission was an effort to provide well-qualified and fair judges. “There is no place for politics when it comes to choosing the state’s most honored and influential legal servants,” Perdue said at the time.

But Republicans said the makeup of the panel belies Perdue’s words.

“Perdue has chosen to stack the commission with political cronies, Democratic operatives and liberal partisan politicians,” said Scott Laster, executive director of the state GOP. “This type of ‘bipartisan, for-the-people fa├žade’ would make a tyrant blush.”

Perdue spokesman Ben Niolet said “party affiliation was not a factor” in the appointments. “The members were chosen because they were the most qualified,” he added.

The commission chairman is Edwin Speas, a Raleigh attorney who was the governor’s general counsel for two years. Also on the panel is Joe Cheshire, a prominent Raleigh defense attorney, who represented Perdue during a criminal investigation into possible campaign spending violations.

A number of the appointees have strong Democratic ties, including Cumberland County Sheriff Earl “Moose” Butler; former U.S. Attorney Janice Cole of Hertford; former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt; former state Rep. Judy Hunt of Blowing Rock; Tom Lambeth, former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation; former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell; and Raleigh lawyer Robert Zaytoun.

Mitchell said one reason for any imbalance is that eight of the 10 posts are reserved for representatives from constituency groups: the State Bar, the Bar Association, the Advocates for Justice, the Association of Defense Attorneys, the Association of Black Lawyers, the Association of Women Attorneys, the Board of Indigent Services Commission, and the Conference of District Attorneys. Each of those groups recommended members to serve on the commission.

The commission was the idea of the N.C. Bar Association, which has been looking for ways to improve the selection of judges. Last year, the association backed a constitutional amendment, which did not advance in the legislature, that would have moved the state toward retention elections.

In the past, governors could simply choose whomever they wanted on the bench. The new screening commission had the backing of all five living former state chief justices, who will serve the panel in an advisory capacity.

Beverly Lake, a former justice who is a Republican, said of the list of commission members, “I don’t think I can say it’s nonpartisan. All the people on there I’m sure are good folks. Some are excellent people, like Burley Mitchell.”

Other members appointed to the commission are Anthony di Santi, a lawyer from Blowing Rock; Eugene Ellison, a lawyer from Asheville; Robert Evans, a district attorney from Nash County; Anne-Marie Knighton, town manger of Edenton; Clark Smith, a lawyer from Greensboro; Troy Smith, a lawyer from New Bern; Jane Whilden, a former lawmaker from Whilden; Elliott Williamson, owner of a real estate company in Lumberton; and James Woodward, former chancellor of UNC Charlotte.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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