Victims of circumstance

Published 8:46am Thursday, August 1, 2013

One has experienced nearly 20 years on the bench; another has passed down judgments for a shade over two years.

Despite the vast difference of their level of experience, two local judges will hang up their robes next year, both earlier than they thought and both through no fault of their own.

The Honorable W. Rob Lewis II and the Honorable Tom Jones Jr. are each the victim of circumstance. Their respective seats on the bench of Judicial District 6B are scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2014. Both had planned to seek reelection. However, their seats have been erased thanks to Senate Bill 402, a provision that consolidates Prosecutorial District 6A and 6B into a single district comprised of Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton counties.

The creation of a single-county Judicial District in Stanly County – in the southwestern part of the state – forced the 6A/6B consolidation. Lewis and Jones became the pawns in that political chess match. Meanwhile, an analysis performed by the Administrative Office of the Courts showed that Districts 6A and 6B needed 2.22 and 2.26 district court judges respectively, while other areas of the state impacted by a much broader merger/consolidation needed additional judges.

Reacting to the news, Jones chose not to comment on the decision made by the General Assembly, and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory last week as part of the state’s new budget package.

“I have been honored to serve the citizens of Bertie, Hertford and Northampton counties over the last two and one-half years and will continue to do so for the remainder of my term,” said Jones who was elected to the bench in 2010 after giving up his private law practice based in Murfreesboro.

“Since becoming a District Court Judge, I have followed through on my campaign promise, that of treating everyone with respect and fairness and to do what’s right,” Jones added. “That will remain the same. I’m not going to change what I do or who I am. I will remain the same person that the citizens of this District elected in 2010 to serve them, and I will continue to work in our communities and in our schools.”

For Lewis, the consolidation of the two districts could not have come at a more inopportune time. Since first being elected in 1994 and serving continuously since that time, Lewis had worked his way up the judicial ladder, now serving in the important role as Chief District Court Judge. He is also one-term away from retirement….a four-year period he will not see thanks to his job being eliminated by the consolidation.

Lewis was not pleased by the legislative actions.

“(The merger) was done at the behest of one, it seems, important Republican legislator who had a vendetta against a Judge in his district,” Lewis stated. “In effect, two Judges (positions) have been taken from the combined district and sent to the western part of the state.  Therefore, beginning 2015, my position as well as the position currently being held by Thomas L. Jones, Jr., has been eliminated. As there are no other judgeships available, we will be without a chance to run for or retain our seats.  In effect, our judgeships will be terminated.”

Lewis said he felt the legislative decision was “taken without proper study, as had been requested by several organizations, including the North Carolina Association of District Court Judges.”

“I do recognize the Legislature’s right to create and eliminate judgeships,” he stated. “From my observation, this was truly partisan politics at its worse.”

He continued, “However, it is just one of many changes that shows the mindset of this current legislature. While I am out of a job, so too are teachers aides and countless others. I worry about the unemployed who lose their benefits after 12 weeks; those seeking public assistance who are subject to more stringent requirements; and, of course, those who face obstructions to the right to vote.”

Lewis said he also worries about the administration of justice in the Sixth Judicial District, which will be left with four Judges for four rural counties.

“However, I know that Judges (Brenda) Branch, (W. Turner) Stephenson, (Teresa) Freeman, and (Vershenia) Moody will do their best to maintain the integrity of the court system,” Lewis noted. “I am also disturbed by the loss of a District Attorney position as victims from Hollister to Indian Woods try to locate their District Attorney. I think about the time it will take to effectively commute over so wide a district.

“On a personal note, I will be alright,” Lewis added. “I know God has not brought me this far in my life to leave me. While I enjoyed being a judge and feel that I was a good judge, the position of judge does not define me. I do not know where God will lead me, but I know as long as I trust Him, I will be alright. I can do anything from practice law, run for political office (District Attorney, House, or Senate) or maybe devote myself full time to my ministry.  Over the coming months I hope with prayer and deliberation that God will steer me in the right direction.”

In closing, Lewis said he wanted to thank the people of Bertie, Hertford, and Northampton counties for their support over the years.

“It has been an honor to serve you. To all of my co-workers in the system; the attorneys, law enforcement, staff in each Clerk of Superior Court office, Departments of Social Services, Division of Juvenile Justice, Probation, Domestic Violence agencies, Child Support agencies, and, of course, my fellow Judges, Magistrates, and Judicial Staff, it has been a pleasure to work with you these past 19 years, and, hopefully, the next eighteen months,” Lewis concluded.

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