Judicial Districts consolidated

Published 8:39 am Tuesday, July 30, 2013

RALEIGH – It’s a done deal, much to the dismay of local judicial officials and area legislators.

When Gov. Pat McCrory signed the new state budget last week, that document contained 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 approved package means that the District will lose two judges – Rob Lewis and Tom Jones, both currently seated in District 6B – as well as pitting current District Attorneys Valerie Asbell (6B) and Melissa Pelfrey (6A) against each other if both decide to seek the combined District 6 seat during the 2014 election cycle.

Lewis, the Chief District Court Judge, has continuously served 6B since first elected in 1994. Jones won his first seat as a District Court Judge in 2010 after giving up his private law practice based in Murfreesboro. Both men will serve out their current terms, set to expire on Dec. 31, 2014.

There will be only four judges to cover the consolidated four-county District – the three currently seated in 6A (Brenda G. Branch, Teresa R. Freeman and W. Turner Stephenson) and Vershenia Ballance Moody (6B) of Northampton County. They will have to run for re-election in the new four county District in 2016.

Asbell lobbied against the proposed merger.

“Although we were notified in early June that this bill was slipped into the budget, I believe I speak for all of us affected that we thought that it would be taken out of the budget because it unfairly targeted our rural counties and took away our resources to form a one county district,” she said. “We all understood it would be a legislative decision and that the decision was ultimately out of our control; however, we fought hard to try to block this legislation because of the negative impact it would have on our justice system.”

The loss of Lewis and Jones was a bitter pill to swallow.

“I am devastated by the provision in this legislation that eliminates the positions of two of my colleagues and good friends that I have worked with for the past 20 years, Judge Rob Lewis and Judge Tom Jones,” Asbell noted. “The loss of their legal expertise and experience on the bench is a severe blow to our already overworked court system.

“Rob and Tom were elected by the people of these three counties to serve because of their fairness and integrity on the bench and because of their contributions to our community outside of the courtroom setting,” she added. “The elimination of Judge Lewis’ and Judge Jones’ positions will leave a void in our three counties. They both remain in my thoughts and prayers.”

According to information provided by State Senator Angela Bryant of Halifax County, an analysis performed by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) 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. However, Bryant said the District Court Judges Conference still opposed this legislatively driven reconfiguration and recommended a comprehensive state-wide study, including all stakeholders and based on all relevant factors and considerations including workload analyses.

“The number of cases entering the system has continued to rise, while the amount of state and local resources available to handle these cases has failed to keep pace,” Asbell stressed. “For the past decade, our judges, prosecutors, and the State Bar have been struggling to deliver justice in the face of diminishing resources and rising needs.”

Asbell continued, “As I said in an earlier interview regarding the possible consolidation, my office has lost three positions, two Victim/Witness Legal Assistants and one Assistant District Attorney due to budget cuts over the last three years. These losses were critical to my office; however, I have a very dedicated staff who are committed to this community and I am proud to have them in my employ.  Every staff member in my office has stepped up and taken on additional responsibilities to ensure that we continue to seek justice for the victims of crime through the fair, equal, vigorous and efficient enforcement of the criminal laws.”

Bryant said all of the northeastern North Carolina legislative delegation – to include her, Senator Clark Jenkins, and House Representatives Michael Wray and Annie Mobley – worked tirelessly to preserve the two judicial districts and get a proper statewide study that would involve all stakeholders.

“But we were not able to combat the power of the state budget chairs,” 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 listed several reasons of how this merger will adversely impact the new four-county District:

Four judges have to cover the four counties with increased travel and administrative tasks;

The population of the district will double while it loses two judges. It creates a challenge for access for many of the citizens in the four county area to get to the district court judges and the District Attorney, depending on where located;

Backlogs and delays will result in delays in justice and collection of fines and fees and child support; custodial parents could remain on public assistance for longer periods than necessary;

The legislation is unfair and done to create a single district for one county (Stanley) to the detriment of four other counties; and

This change can affect and limit access to services and justice for victims, citizens and lawyers; can affect access between law enforcement and judges and the District Attorney; law enforcement officers and lawyers may have to travel more distance to meet with judges or district attorneys; the District Attorney may have to travel more distance to view crime scenes; the broader district may lessen the feel of accountability to the citizens.

“It’s disappointing that legislation which so profoundly affects our area of the state was rushed through without the opportunity for input from our citizens and court personnel,” said Pelfrey. “Compared to other districts, we are already stretched thin to cover the caseload in our local courts, and this change makes it that much more challenging to ensure that our people get the justice system they deserve.

“I commend Representatives Annie Mobley and Michael Wray, as well as Senator Angela Bryant, in their valiant efforts to block this legislation, but, as usual, it’s a numbers game in Raleigh, and frankly, very few legislators are listening to the voice of rural North Carolina right now,” Pelfrey concluded.

When asked how this consolidation would affect her currently and in the future, Asbell stated, “When I took the position of District Attorney 13 years ago, I promised the citizens of 6B that I would continue to aggressively fight hard for the victims of crime and I would treat all people with dignity, respect, honesty and fairness and I would continue to work in the community to try to keep our young people out of the courtroom if possible.  I have kept that promise. With this consolidation, I will make the same promise to the citizens of Halifax County to stay true to my mission statement to seek justice by ensuring that victims’ rights and the public’s safety is my number one priority for all four counties.”

The consolidation of 6A and 6B does not impact the Superior Court. There will continue to be two Superior Court Districts, 6A and 6B, each with a Chief Resident Superior Court Judge.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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