Election guide: A breakdown of each judicial race on the Mecklenburg County ballot

Election guide: A breakdown of each judicial race on the Mecklenburg County ballot
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Of all the races on the ballot this November, judicial races are among the least talked about. But odds are a judge is more likely to have direct influence over your life than the president or even a state senator.

Whether you’re going through a custody battle with an ex or have a case going to the state supreme court, your judge’s interpretation of the law could change your future. Although multiple judicial candidates advocate for keeping politics out of the court, Republican and Democratic judges have fundamental differences on how they interpret the constitution and therefore hand down rulings.

Below you’ll find information on every judge on the ballot for Mecklenburg County voters. From professional experience to volunteer experience, we tried to give a well-rounded view of each candidate running in an opposed race.

County-wide elections: This year Mecklenburg County district court elections are back to being county wide. This change comes after cries from community members and judges who were gerrymandered back in 2018 by the Republican-led General Assembly. The state passed a law that allowed voters to choose only the judge for their district. Advocates who opposed the law argued that judges hear cases from all 12 districts, not just their own.

Judge Donald Cureton, a Black man who lost his re-election in 2018 after being placed in a majority white district, fought to change the law. He was later appointed by Governor Cooper to fill a vacancy on the District Court.

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He says making the election countywide allows constituents to keep county judges accountable.

“It’s important that everyone that comes in front of us has a voice. If they don’t like what we’re doing, then they can vote us out,” Cureton said. “But what the old law did was say even those people that come in front of us and don’t like what we’re doing, they have no voice.”

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Superior Court Race

How the court works: The Superior Court is North Carolina’s oldest court. Superior Court judges rotate among the districts in their division every six months to avoid conflicts of interest that may arise by permanently staying in one district for the duration of their term.

The judges here oversee civil cases involving more than $25,000, all felony criminal cases, and some misdemeanors. All defendants who plead not guilty in these types of cases are assigned a jury.

On the ballot in Mecklenburg: Voters will choose a Superior Court judge for District 26, which covers south Charlotte, Mint Hill, and Matthews.

Viser is finishing his first term as the District 26 superior court judge. He describes himself as a conservative judge who strictly upholds the constitution as written. The judge has been endorsed by a number of current and former politicians and law enforcement officers, including former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael. Viser made the news last year for ruling that the city didn’t have to release records of police purchases and security equipment ahead of the RNC. He also ruled in favor of residents of the Days Inn after it tried to close  in April.

Brooks, a Fayetteville native and former district court judge with experience working in a variety of courts including family, civil, and criminal, lost her seat in 2018 after serving two terms. The judge attributed the narrow loss to being placed in a mostly white district. She was one of the advocates for moving District Court races countywide. Brooks is active in the community and has volunteered as a truancy court judge.

District Court Races

How the court works: District courts see civil cases — issues like child custody and divorce, smaller criminal matters like misdemeanors, and cases involving juveniles. The court also has magistrates.

On the ballot: Only two of the 12 district court races are contested.

1- Kimberly Best (Democrat, incumbent) vs. Pat Finn (Republican)

Best, who moved to Charlotte 20 years ago, was a Spanish teacher at J.T. Williams Middle School before serving as a criminal magistrate. She then opened her own firm and was elected as district court judge in 2008. Now she’s running for her fourth term. Currently she presides over Wellness Court, and believes justice isn’t “one size fits all.” She works with a variety of organizations doing work to help local students and children in foster care. She’s endorsed by a variety of politicians, community advocates, and faith leaders.

Finn, a third generation Charlottean, currently works as an attorney for a private law practice. Before that, Finn worked as an assistant district attorney for Catawba County. He describes himself as deliberate, fair, and skilled. Finn volunteers with Legal Aid of North Carolina and works with victims of domestic violence in child custody matters. He’s endorsed by a long list of North Carolina lawyers.

2- Aretha Blake (Democrat) unopposed
3- Jenna Culler (Democrat) unopposed
4- Donald Cureton Jr. (Democrat) unopposed
5- Faith Fickling-Alvarez (Democrat) unopposed
6- Ty Hands (Democrat) unopposed
7- Gary Henderson (Democrat) unopposed
8- Christy T. Mann (Democrat) unopposed

9- Rex Marvel (Democrat, incumbent) vs. Sunny Panyanouvong-Rubeck (Republican)

Marvel, appointed in 2019, presides over family court. He has experience as a public defender and also works as a CPCC professor. He says he works to be prompt so families can quickly move on, and aims for equal access to justice. Marvel leads ‘Know Your Rights’ sessions for the Mecklenburg County Bar and has volunteered to work with students at Garinger High School.

Panyanouvong-Rubeck, who was the first in her family to graduate from college after immigrating from Laos, currently supervises the Felony Drug Unit in the Mecklenburg County Public Defender’s Office. She says she has strong beliefs in constitutional protections and the judicial process. In law school Panyanouvong-Rubeck advocated for injured veterans.

10- C. Renee Little (Democrat) unopposed
11- Elizabeth Thornton Trosch (Democrat) unopposed
12- Roy H. Wiggins (Democrat) unopposed

State Courts

How the court works: These include the N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals.

The state Supreme Court operates similarly to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s headed by a Chief Justice and has six other associate justices. It is the highest court in the state. Appeals courts hear cases from trial courts to determine whether any legal errors were made.

The Chief Justice is responsible for overseeing the entire judicial branch, not just hearing Supreme Court cases.

Beasley became the first Black woman to become Chief Justice last year when Governor Roy Cooper appointed her. Now she’s running for a full term against Newby. Beasley says courts play an important role in helping people better their lives and that she believes the court system should be transparent, fair, and accessible. Before starting her judicial career, Beasley was a public defender in Cumberland County. She’s worked to increase judicial branch online services and the number of specialty courts. She’s also been in charge of orders to keep the courts closed to jury trials during the pandemic; her most recent order extended the hold to October 15.

Newby was first elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2004, which makes him the longest serving judge of the current Supreme Court Justices. He prides himself on being a constitutional and historical scholar; his judicial philosophy includes judicial restraint and upholding the Constitution. Newby, an Eagle Scout and a Boy Scouts of America leader, is also an adjunct law professor at Campbell Law School. The lone Republican on the seven-judge court, Newby has written several dissenting opinions in recent years, most notably in cases where death-row inmates argue that racial bias was a significant factor in their sentence.

Berger currently serves as an appellate court judge after being elected in 2016. He started his career working at his family’s law firm and went on to serve as District Attorney in 2006. Berger says his passion lies with helping young people. He’s coached a number of local sports teams over the years. He’s endorsed by a variety of organizations including the North Carolina Troopers Association.

Inman, a Raleigh native, is also an appellate court judge. She started her career as a journalist which inspired her career as a judge. She went on to practice civil litigation in Los Angeles and then Raleigh for 18 years. In 2010 Inman was appointed to special superior court judge by Governor Bev Perdue. She was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2014. She’s endorsed by retired chief justices and judges and a variety of organizations including the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte Mecklenburg.

Barringer, who’s endorsed by the North Carolina Troopers Association, says she values strict interpretation of the constitution. As a state senator from 2013 to 2018, Barringer sponsored a variety of bills from those protecting law enforcement officers to hurricane recovery bills. The former senator also teaches legal studies at UNC Chapel Hill’s business school.

Davis, a North Carolina native, practiced law in Raleigh for nearly 20 years before being appointed to the Supreme Court by Governor Cooper in 2019. He’s worked as the Special Deputy Attorney in the state Department of Justice, and as general counsel for the governor’s office. He was appointed to the appellate court in 2012 by Governor Bev Perdue. Davis has also volunteered to coach youth basketball and soccer. He’s endorsed by a variety of judges and organizations including NC Advocates for Justice and Governor Cooper.

Shields started her career as an appellate court clerk and went on to work at a private practice. She’s been recognized on a number of top lawyer lists both state and nationwide. She’s endorsed by a number of organizations, including the Sierra Club, Equality NC, and the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Wood, a self-described lifelong Republican and Christian conservative, has served as a district court judge since 2002. As the daughter of a Marine, Wood grew up in different cities around the world. Her father, now retired and working with the sheriff’s office, often serves as the bailiff in her courtrooms. The judge works with a number of nonprofits and is endorsed by the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office.

Cubbage is currently the Superior Court Judge for Guiliford County. She’s also been an assistant district attorney, assistant attorney general, and as a district court judge. Cubbage helped establish the drug and mental health courts. The judge is endorsed by Governor Cooper and says North Carolina’s courts should reflect the diversity of the state.

A current National Guardsman and native North Carolinian, Gore has experience in military and civilian courts. He’s also been a prosecutor in the Durham District Attorney’s Office and is currently a Judge Advocate General for the North Carolina National Guard. He volunteers in multiple organizations including the Boy Scouts of America.

Dillon, who’s the only appellate court judge seeking re-election (other judges returning to the court this year were appointed by the governor), was first elected to the Court of Appeals in 2012. He’s a Raleigh native who prides himself on having bi-partisan support and a diverse background that includes being a licensed real estate broker. He’s endorsed by a number of former judges along with the N.C. Advocates for Justice and the N.C. Association of Defense Attorneys.

Styers started his own law firm in 2010. He later merged his firm with another and currently practices matters including regulatory law and economic development. He’s lived his entire life in North Carolina and does pro bono work for Legal Aid. He also plays trumpet in his church band. He’s received the Citizens Lawyer award from the N.C. Bar Association and was named Leader in the Law by Lawyers Weekly. He’s endorsed by a number of former judges and justices and organizations including Equality NC.

Carpenter is a resident superior court judge for Union County. He started his law career as a private attorney. He has experience with the Guardian Ad Litem Program where he advocates for abused and neglected children. Before becoming a lawyer, Carpenter was a state highway patrol trooper where he met his wife, Love, a fellow trooper.

Young was appointed by Governor Cooper in 2019. Before joining the appeals court, he was Interim Chief Deputy Secretary of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice. Young has experience as a prosecutor, assistant attorney general, and as a private attorney. He’s endorsed by Governor Cooper and number of organizations, including the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a social worker group, an educator group, and a defense attorney group.

Brook was appointed to the appellate court by Governor Cooper in 2019. The judge grew up in Raleigh and has experience practicing law in state and federal courts. He’s also served as the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Brooks serves on a number of different boards and is a founding member of El Centro Hispano, a monthly housing law clinic in Durham. He’s endorsed by a variety of politicians and organizations including Mecklenburg County’s District Attorney Spencer Merriweather and the North Carolina Advocates for Justice.

Griffin was born and raised on a farm in Nash County. He worked as a prosecutor in the Wake County District Attorney’s Office and was appointed as a District Court judge by Governor Pat McCrory in 2015. He’s also a captain in the N.C. Army National Guard a JAG Officer. He’s endorsed by the N.C. Republican Party.


Want more election coverage? Check out the Agenda’s voter guide: The Agenda’s 2020 Voter Guide: What to expect from the nearly 40 contests on Mecklenburg’s ballots

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