Two become one

Published 11:39 pm Monday, July 21, 2014

The reality of the pending merger of Judicial Districts 6A and 6B is setting in. That thought is not lost on Judge Brenda G. Branch.

Effective Jan. 1 of next year, the two current stand-alone Districts (A: Halifax County; B: Bertie, Hertford and Northampton counties) will become one. Branch currently serves Halifax as its Chief District Court Judge and she will handle that busy job when the two Districts merge.

“We have already launched a series of meetings that have included members of several different agencies within these two districts where we have began discussions and plans to develop a schedule that will merge the district courts,” Judge Branch stated during a recent visit to the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald office in Ahoskie.

The key element in this merger is how to handle what are typically busy court dockets in both Districts with only four judges. The merger, deemed necessary by the state, will reduce the number of District Court Judges from six to four. Current District 6B Judges W. Rob Lewis II and Tom Jones Jr., both elected in 2010, saw their positions eliminated by the merger.

Lewis, with nearly 20 years of experience on the bench, is now Chief District 6B Judge. Jones, a former Murfreesboro attorney, is in his first term as a District Court Judge.

“I want to the citizens of District 6B to understand that the judges of District 6A had nothing to do with the elimination of the seats on the bench now held by Judge Lewis and Judge Jones,” Branch stressed. “We all fought against this merger, but we lost that fight due to the political process in Raleigh.

“There was no way the state could legally go against the wishes of the voters and oust Judge Lewis and Judge Jones while they were serving an active term of office (four years),” Branch added. “The only legal recourse was to wait until their current terms expire (Dec. 31, 2014) and officially eliminate those seats on the bench.”

Branch, W. Turner Stephenson III and Teresa R. Freeman, all from HalifaxCounty, and Vershenia B. Moody of Northampton County will be the four District Court Judges when the newly merged District 6 begins its judicial duties on Jan. 1 of next year. Those four judges were top choices of the voters in 2012, meaning their four-year terms will return to the election cycle in 2016.

But for now, Judge Branch is concerned with how to make the combined District work fluidly.

“That’s what these meetings are for; we have to start putting a plan together now and not wait until November/December to get our act together,” she stressed. “We have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time.”

Branch said not only does the merger impact District Court, which are often held multiple times in one week in all four counties, but Juvenile Court, Civil Court, Traffic Court, Criminal Court, Family Court and DSS legal matters as well.

“What we want to learn from these meetings is where legal services are perhaps duplicated and how we can streamline those services to make it more convenient for our citizens as well as more fluid for our judicial staff,” Branch noted.

The initial meeting of the Merger Committee included Judges Branch, Stephens, Freeman, Lewis and Moody. Others in attendance were District Attorney Valerie Asbell (elected in May as the DA of the combined District), Clerk of Court Laquitta Green Cooper (Northampton) and Becky Spragins (Halifax), Sheriffs Juan Vaughan (Hertford) and Jack Smith (Northampton), Bar Association Presidents Clifton Smith III (6B) and Norlan Graves (6A), DSS Staff attorneys Luther Culpepper (Northampton), Braxton Gilliam (Bertie) and Dana Southard (Halifax), Northampton DSS Director Shelia Manley-Evans, and Windy Rose, Bertie/Hertford Child Support Attorney.

Judge Branch said that Sheriffs John Holley (Bertie) and Wes Tripp (Halifax); Clerk of Court Vasti F. James (Bertie) and Shirley Johnson (Hertford), and Bertie DSS Director Linda Speller were unable to attend the latest meeting due to prior commitments. However, each sent a designee to represent their agency.

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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