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Ever wonder what the difference is between a District Court Judge, a Superior Court Judge, a judge on the Court of Appeals, and a Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court? This November, understanding the distinctions between those courts will be important when you visit the polls. There are three seats on the Supreme Court, five seats on the Court of Appeals, and numerous Superior Court and District Court seats on this November’s ballot. With that in mind, a quick civics lesson follows.
District Court: The district court is a local level court that has jurisdiction over civil matters with a claim for damages less than $25,000.00. This court also handles juvenile matters, family court issues (divorce, custody, equitable distribution, domestic violence), and criminal matters involving misdemeanors and infractions (non-jury). District court also oversees the magistrates (civil: small claims [$10,000.00 or less], evictions, recovery of personal property and motor vehicle mechanics’ liens; criminal: warrants for arrest, set bail, guilty pleas for misdemeanors and infractions [traffic], worthless checks). For most North Carolinians, this is the most likely touch point they will have with the judicial system. Electing judges who know the law, will apply the law, have good common sense and great people skills is important. A breadth of legal experience is helpful because a District Court Judge may be assigned to a court room hearing any of the types of matters listed above. These judges sit only in the judicial district in which they are elected.
Superior Court: The superior court is the next step up in the judicial hierarchy for North Carolina. Judges are elected by specific districts (divisions within the judicial district), but in non-pandemic times may be assigned anywhere in the state. Judges in this court hear civil matters in excess of $25,000.00 with a jury or as a bench trial. The court handles all felony criminal cases and misdemeanor and infraction cases appealed from the district court’s decision. Judges at the superior court level do well with experience at the district court level, but that is not a pre-requisite. Judges at this level need to have a strong educational background, with good reasoning and writing skills. They need to be effective communicators with a broad range of experience and a familiarity with the court room whether as an advocate or a judge. Being decisive is a great quality for any judge, but especially in this court where the next stop is an appellate court. Judges at this level may be asked to address state constitutional issues, so it is imperative that those selected by as apolitical as possible in a state that requires its judicial candidates to list party affiliation. The best judges leave partisan politics in their office when they don their robe, and arrive in the court room impartial and ready to apply the law to the facts.
Court of Appeals: The court of appeals is the intermediate appellate court and the “workhorse” court. This court hears appeals from decisions made by North Carolina administrative agencies and administrative law judges, from district and superior courts (family law, civil and criminal). This court sits in panels of three judges which rotate and shuffle. They decide their cases off a record on appeal which may be thousands of pages long, and the briefs submitted by each party. Certain cases are selected for oral argument which last one-hour (30-minutes a side). The court has specific guidelines as to what it can review – errors of law or legal procedure (it does not decide questions of fact). This is a high-volume court. A judge elected to this court must have exceptional analytical and writing skills. They must be able to communicate clearly both verbally and in writing. Experience as a lawyer is important and it is important for the court as a whole to have a wide variety of experiences and practice areas represented, but it is not as important that each individual judge have a wide-breadth of practice experience. Having a depth of knowledge and an inquisitive nature is more important. Because these judges are elected statewide, involvement in politics is a necessary evil. It is a must that they do not campaign on a platform or providing any suggestion as to how they would decide any issue. A court of appeals judge needs to be able to evaluate the information provided to them, do the necessary research, reach a legal conclusion, and then communicate that decision in a clear and cogent written opinion that will become precedent for judges and lawyers.
Supreme Court: This is the highest court in North Carolina and, except for the rarest of occasions, the court of last resort. It hears appeals from the Court of Appeals where the Court of Appeals’ panel split, plus appeals from the North Carolina Business Court (a specialized version of Superior Court) and appeals from Superior Court panels addressing issues involving the North Carolina Constitution. The Supreme Court may also decide, after considering a petition filed by a party, to hear an appeal from a unanimous decision from the Court of Appeals. This will generally occur if the Supreme Court determines that the Court of Appeals might have erred, or if the issue to be decided is one of such judicial importance that it deserves a hearing and decision from this court. This court can be subject to immense political pressure therefore, it requires justices with exceptional credentials. Educational background matters. Legal experience matters. It is not as much important that a candidate has been a judge before as that they understand a courtroom and the law, and most specifically, the laws of North Carolina. It is interesting to note that some of the most respected justices previously served in the state legislature, so ruling someone out just because they have been politically active would be a mistake. That being said, if the candidate runs on a political platform or stressing party first, that may well be a disqualifier. It is imperative that a judge on this court be able to set political beliefs aside and rule based upon the legal principles and the precedents presented to the court.
The moral of this story – pay attention to the down ballot races in November and do your homework. Decisions by each of these court levels have an impact on your life. And note that federal “hot button” issues are not heard in any of these courts.
By: Nan E. Hannah