Cross-posted at dKos
The front-page story on today's Charlotte Observer contains a disturbing story about two judges here in Charlotte. I've read this twice in print and once online, and I keep coming to the same conclusion--judges in North Carolina should be appointed based on merit, not elected.
Mecklenburg Chief District Judge Lisa Bell has taken $50,000 in contributions since first running for a judgeship in 1998 (she's been chief judge since 2008)--most of them from lawyers. One of her colleagues, Becky Tin, has gotten roughly the same amount since her first campaign in 2002. Lawyers from James, McElroy and Diehl, one of Charlotte's more aggressive firms, have given them each donations totaling over $2,500. Those amounts alone provide ready-made ammo for bias accusations. The problem is that the judges' critics dimply don't hold up under scrutiny.
Tin has been under fire from Lisa Pennington, a child psychologist who lost custody of her two kids back in 2008. Her ex-husband is represented by the Diehl firm.
Pennington lost custody of her sons in Tin's courtroom in a special court called the complex domestic litigation track. Created in 2007, the court was designed for long or complicated divorce and child custody cases.
Mecklenburg's regular district court isn't set up to handle lengthy trials, and legal experts say such special-purpose courts are common.
As the only judge assigned to the special court, Tin was bound to draw detractors, some lawyers say, because she presided over some of Mecklenburg's highest-conflict cases.
Pennington claimed that Tin was biased toward the Diehl firm, in part because of the numerous contributions she's gotten from its lawyers. However, according to a separate story, Pennington has no credibility whatsoever. The police found Pennington's allegations were unfounded, and the Department of Social Services actually found that Pennington herself was guilty of neglect. Tin's ruling found that Pennington and her boyfriend had coached her sons to make the allegations--something which, to my mind, is grounds for Pennington herself to be brought up on charges of moral turpitude.
To my mind, we wouldn't even be having this discussion if judges were appointed rather than elected. By definition, the idea of having judges run in elections--even if they're nonpartisan--limits their independence. It also creates the appearance of bias even when no bias exists at all.