Halifax opposes Judicial District merger

Published 8:33 am Thursday, June 27, 2013

By Lance Martin


HALIFAX – The elected leaders of one local county stand in opposition of a proposed merger of Judicial District 6A and 6B.

At their scheduled meeting on Monday, the Halifax County Board of Commissioners went on the record to voice their concerns on the issue. It is not known if the commissioners in the other three counties – Bertie, Hertford and Northampton – will join Halifax in opposing the possible merger. The Hertford County Commissioners met last night (Wednesday). Commissioners in Bertie and Northampton have meetings scheduled for next week.

The Halifax Commissioners voted unanimously to have County Manager Tony Brown send a letter to state Republican Representative Nelson Dollar opposing the move. Halifax County Commissioner Rives Manning also suggested that each board member draft letters.

“Combining Judicial Districts 6A and 6B into one district, we would lose two judges and lose a DA,” Manning said. “It would give us a district from Hollister to Winton. This was almost how it worked in the past.”

Commissioner Vernon Bryant said if the measure is approved it would mean Halifax County District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey would have to run against 6B District Attorney Valerie Mitchell Asbell.

“It will jeopardize an already burdened court system,” Bryant noted.

Brown says in the letter, “As you know, Halifax County is one of the largest geographical counties in the state of North Carolina. It is our concern that four judges cannot cover the four counties given the travel and increased level of administrative tasks that would be absorbed by the chief district court judge.”

The letter continues, “It is also our concern that the population of the district will double while it loses two judges and HalifaxCounty would be added to a judicial district with three other counties which creates a challenge for our citizens, lawyers, law enforcement to gain access to the district court judges and district attorney.”

The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald broke this story on June 14, reporting that District 5 Representative Annie Mobley of Ahoskie said the proposal was a surprise entry into the House version of the budget that allowed judicial district changes to be entered into the “special provisions” portion of the budget. One special provision called for the consolidation of Judicial Districts 6A — Halifax County — and 6B — Hertford, Northampton and Bertie — and Prosecutorial Districts 6A and 6B.

“That special provision will bring about the loss of two judges and a prosecutor for our area,” Mobley stated.

Mobley said the special provision was a surprise to many House members simply because there had previously been no bill introduced to attempt to make the changes sought in the provision.

The proposal would eliminate the seats of two 6B judges – Chief Judge Rob Lewis and Judge Tom Jones. Their seats are impacted due to the fact they are next in line – as are Asbell and Pelfrey – for reelection in 2014, the year in which the proposed consolidation would begin.

Four other current District Court Judges – Brenda G. Branch, Teresa R. Freeman and W. Turner Stephenson (all in District 6A) and Vershenia Ballance Moody (District 6B) – were elected last year. They would have to seek reelection in 2016 in the new four-county combined district.

Mobley feels that an action of the Republican majority in the North Carolina House of Representatives puts citizens of Hertford, Bertie, Halifax and Northampton counties in the position of having insufficient representation in the judicial system.

“I feel great personal disappointment about the way things were handled by our Republican majority,” Mobley stated. “My feelings for the wonderful people of these four counties go even deeper. Because of this action on the House floor these people are losing access to the judicial system, access to judicial services and a full opportunity to have their needs met by the judiciary. They are the ones who will be harmed by this action, if it stands up.”

State Senator Angela Bryant joins Mobley in the effort to overturn the special provision. She said the move to combine 6A and 6B was done in order to create a new single district (20A) in Stanley County.

“This secret legislation is unfair and done to create a single district for one county to the detriment of four other counties,” Bryant stated. “This type of reconfiguration should be done after a study of the entire system and with the opportunity for input from all affected.”

Bryant said it was impossible for four judges to cover four counties, especially considering the size of Bertie and Halifax counties.

“When I heard the news of a possible consolidation of Districts 6A and 6B, I was very concerned about the negative effects the possible consolidation would have on these four counties as a whole,” stated Asbell. “I agree with Senator Bryant’s concerns that this consolidation would decrease the services that our offices provide to our citizens.

Asbell continued, “Eliminating two of our District Court Judges, Chief District Court Judge Rob Lewis and Judge Thomas L. Jones, would result in delays in court proceedings for victims of crime and also civil proceedings. It is my hope that the Senate will rectify this issue so that my office will be able to continue to seek justice for the victims of crime through the fair, equal, vigorous, and efficient enforcement of the criminal laws.”

Mobley stressed that the fight is far from over.

“The House version of the budget is not a final product,” she said. “The House budget and the Senate version of the budget must be reconciled to produce a final product.”

As that reconciliation process takes place, Mobley said she will be working with Senate members in an effort to make the judiciary corrections that are needed in Districts 6A and 6B.

(Lance Martin is Publisher and Editor of www.rrspin.com and granted permission for portions of this article to be published.)