Merger in the court

Published 9:12 am Thursday, September 18, 2014

WINTON – Starting on Jan. 1, 2015, judicial districts 6A and 6B will merge into one Judicial District-6.  This change was mandated by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2013 with the passage of Senate Bill 402.

When the changes occur, the Honorable W. Rob Lewis II and the Honorable Tom Jones, Jr. will lose their respective seats on the bench of what was once Judicial District 6B serving Bertie, Hertford, and Northampton counties.  Prior to the change, Lewis’ and Jones’ terms as district justices were due to expire on Dec. 31 of this year and both had planned to seek reelection.

However, with their seats erased thanks to a provision that consolidated Prosecutorial District 6A and 6B into a single district comprised of Bertie, Hertford, Northampton, and now Halifax counties, the four sitting judges for the new district will be the Honorable Vershenia Balance Moody of Northampton County and three justices from Halifax County: the Honorable Brenda G. Branch, Chief Judge, along with the Honorable W. Turner Stephenson III and the Honorable Teresa R. Freeman.

Beginning this month, Judge Branch has begun a series of meetings with several different agencies within the new district that are served by the court system in order to set the court schedule that begins in Jan. 2015.  Part of those meetings includes speaking before the Boards of Commissioners of the four counties in order to outline the plan.

Monday night Branch spoke before the Hertford County Commissioners.

“Right now, some of the citizens might not get the services they’re used to,” Branch said. “They may not have the direct contact with the judges that they’re having now; some of those things will change. We’re asking that you to talk to the citizens about what happened.”

Branch said because the timetable has not been set, everyone from local government to the citizenry will have to exercise tolerance.

“Be patient,” she cautioned. “As we set the new schedule we anticipate having to tweak it around March.  We anticipate having it ready around the end of October.”

Branch indicated some of the scheduling may have come sooner, but they wanted law enforcement in the four counties to have at least four weeks of preparation for the changes.

“In Halifax County we have a DWI court, if we’re not going to have it, they need to know things like that,” Branch added. “We’re going to try to get it out to give people time to plan their workload for the year as well.”

Lewis also attended the commissioner’s meeting and Branch had praise for his assistance during the transition.

“I commend (him) because he’s been working with me giving me the benefit of his experience,” Branch complimented. “He’s been explaining and he’s been going places; whereas some people would say, ‘They did this to me, I’m not going to be bothered’, he has not done that, he has been very helpful and cordial to me and I appreciate it.”

Commission chairman William Mitchell reminded those assembled that Branch began her career as an Assistant District Attorney in the district before her appointment to the bench by then-governor Mike Easley.  Branch then went on to cite her own work with current District Attorney Valerie Asbell in Bertie County.

“I’m familiar with the area and I’m familiar with the court system,” she stated.

Branch said Lewis had lobbied to retain his seat on the bench and that he had also gone before the legislature to fight for Family Court.

“I think being down east without a lot of resources and sometimes without having people who know the process I think sometimes it works against us,” Branch said. “We’re not as considered as some are, but we have a history of working together and working toward our goal together and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

The commissioners thanked the judges for their presentation.

“Again, just be patient,” echoed Lewis. “As you hear things you can kind of refute some of the anger toward the court system.  There’ll be backlogs; there’ll be people complaining, things like that.”

The justices discussed some of the history of the judicial district change so the commissioners could share that with their constituents.

“Generally speaking, the study was based on filings,” said Lewis. “It wasn’t a workload study.  We’re not going to have a lot of filings.”

The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), located in Raleigh, provides support services for the courts and administers the court system’s budget.

When a new judicial district was created in 2013 in the western Piedmont, the addition of two new judges there meant the elimination of the two judicial seats in this district.

“They went to a study that had been done and that study was based on criminal court filings, just that,” Branch explained. “But it didn’t consider any of the other courts: juvenile court, family court, civil court, divorce court; it didn’t consider any of that, so of course it didn’t get a proper workload formula. In using that study it said we (District-6) needed four and a half judges as opposed to what we already have.

Branch said she called for a comprehensive statewide study.

“So that if it pans out, fine. You’ve done it properly and we (would) think it’s been done fairly across the state and they didn’t do that and they didn’t have a chance to do that,” Branch said.

Branch added that the timing of the legislation affected their group’s effort to raise support.

The judge said the November election will determine a lot of the course of how the district’s administration moves forward.  Gov. Pat McCrory announced several weeks ago the elevation of Associate Justice Mark Martin to the chief’s position with the retirement of Chief Justice Sarah Parker at the end of August.

Martin will remain in the position at least through the end of 2014. He is running in November for a full eight-year term as chief justice against Superior Court Judge Ola Lewis. The chief justice is considered the head of the state court system.

“The (district) chief justice serves at the pleasure of the Chief Justice,” Branch related. “He has not indicated whether he’s going to come here and change chiefs.  He can do it now, he can wait until January 2015, or he can wait until ‘16 when we’re all up (for election).”

Branch related other aspects of the judicial process with regard to the district.  Among them were the assignment of additional judges, as needed; and the desire to retain the district’s two administrative assistants: one in Halifax and the other in Bertie.

“We want to keep both so that we won’t lose any more jobs; so it’s not just about courts it’s about jobs, too,” she reiterated.