The following are answers to rrspin.com questions for the Halifax County Superior Court Judge race:
I graduated from Roanoke Rapids High School in 2000. I received my B.A. from Campbell University in 2004, and my Juris Doctor from the University of Memphis in 2007.
I’ve been practicing law in Superior Court in Halifax for the last 14 years.
I was hired out of law school by then-District Attorney Bill Graham, and for two years I prosecuted criminal cases in Halifax County as assistant district attorney.
In 2010, I went into private practice with Gilbert Chichester.
I’ve been with Chichester Law Office in Roanoke Rapids for the last 11 ½ years.
During that time, I've represented thousands of clients in criminal and civil cases, and taken those cases to trial both in front of judges and juries.
For the last decade, I've also handled every expungement at Chichester Law Office.
I’ve represented many people in proceedings to have their firearms rights restored.
Outside of Superior Court, I've also represented injured workers in worker’s compensation cases, disability claimants before the Social Security Commission, and professionals before various State licensing boards in Raleigh.
I've taken several cases to the court of appeals. I have served as attorney for the City of Roanoke Rapids since 2019, and I was recently appointed attorney for Halifax Community College in Weldon.
Member and Past President of the District 7 Bar, member and Past President of the Halifax County Bar Association. Member of the NC Bar Association.
I was raised in Roanoke Rapids, and my mother's family is from the Darlington area. My grandfather Joe Shearin donated the land where Halifax Academy now stands. My wife, Katie Ammann owns and operates the Music School of Roanoke Rapids from the old Freid's Building on Roanoke Ave. She also serves as organist and church secretary for St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. I grew up in All Saints' Episcopal Church in Roanoke Rapids.
I have not sought any endorsements. This is a deliberate choice on my part, since I feel that it could compromise my independence as a judge. I also see my candidacy as a challenge to the existing status quo in Halifax, and I prefer to appeal directly to the citizens of this county.
Why are you seeking this office and what makes you qualified to hold it if elected?
I have practiced law in Superior Court in Halifax County for over a decade.
I haven’t gone to greener pastures elsewhere, and I haven’t been sitting on the bench holding (or not holding) court. Instead, I've been here, in Halifax County, representing our citizens and businesses for all of that time.
For years, I have witnessed first-hand how our courts are failing to deliver justice to our citizens in a timely fashion.
I have a strong belief in hard work, and I do not feel that we can fix our court system without making drastic changes to court operations.
We only have a single Superior Court Judge position for all of Halifax County.
The Superior Court handles serious criminal cases and complex civil matters.
It is also a court of record, and the appellate courts have the opportunity to review every single word and decision a Superior Court Judge makes in a case.
Therefore, it is critical that you have a judge who understands the laws and procedures applicable to both criminal and civil cases, so that the judge’s rulings will survive the scrutiny of the Court of Appeals.
I know those rules and procedures, because I have been arguing them on behalf of my clients in court here in Halifax County for over a decade.
Do you identify as a conservative, liberal, or moderate?
Like virtually all of our local officials, I am running as a Democrat. But my registration records are public, and I make no secret of the fact that I was a registered Republican for most of my life.
Many of my impulses are conservative, but like everyone, I try to approach situations in a reasonable fashion after listening to all of the evidence.
Long experience as a defense attorney has shown me that a one-size-fits-all ideology will not fly in every case.
What is your first priority when elected to office?
I'm not going to make promises I can't deliver on, or that I don't have the power to implement. With that initial caveat, here is what I will do.
Within the first week of my tenure, I will revise the county's bond policy, and make it publicly available.
My court will be radically transparent with respect to bond matters, and the reasons for any bond changes will be documented in writing in the public file.
I will also request additional settings of court from the administrative office of the courts in Raleigh.
We have to start trying cases again, begin to aggressively work down our backlog, and clear out all of the old cases that attorneys on both sides of the courtroom are not addressing.
What needs to be done to improve mental health services in Halifax County?
The state of mental health services in North Carolina is abysmal, and as a Tier 1 county, our situation in Halifax is especially dire.
I think very few people realize that by law, the State cannot prosecute someone who is determined “not competent” to proceed to trial regardless of the severity or violence of their conduct; often this results in a dismissal of their cases.
As a matter of public safety therefore, we need to have a functioning mental health system that addresses residents with mental health issues so that they can be treated before they commit an act that lands them in court.
That said, I will not tell you I have the power to do something as a Superior Court Judge that by law, I do not have the power to do.
The fact of the matter is that virtually all mental health-related proceedings such as involuntary commitments or guardianship determinations are handled by judges at the District Court level, or by the county clerk of court.
By law, a Superior Court Judge has virtually no legal role in matters of mental health.
Superior Court Judges have enough to do if they are holding court like they should be.
If a judge wants to advocate for mental health services for this county, I think that’s laudable — but it’s not the job we are being paid to do.
Do you support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes?
Personally, I find drug culture insipid and self-destructive, but I support legalization of marijuana across the board.
We crossed the cultural Rubicon on marijuana use a long time ago, and at this point, society has moved on.
It is time we stop wasting our limited State resources on prosecuting marijuana cases, and stop penalizing users who seem to be able to be productive members of society despite their recreational use.
Do you support the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes?
Refer to my previous answer on medical marijuana.
Our State should legalize marijuana, tax it, and regulate it appropriately — much like we do with other harmful vices such as cigarettes and alcohol.
There are too many people in this county charged with murder, robbery, and other violent offenses. We need to focus our resources on those matters.
Should Halifax County be reverted to a single judicial and prosecutorial district?
I practiced law in this district both before and after it was combined with Northampton, Hertford, and Bertie Counties.
I would love for Halifax County to be a single district again, but anyone who tells you that this is possible in the near future is living in a fantasy world.
A local Superior Court Judge has no power to affect it, and as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t make promises I can't deliver on.
There is absolutely no way our local officials can convince the legislators in Raleigh to spend the money required to split our district.
We simply do not have the data to support it, precisely because our court officials have not been using the resources they’ve been given effectively.
Our courts take ten years to resolve some cases, but they are also ending court one or two days into a week of Superior Court.
Our District Courts regularly end at noon in all four counties.
From a simple numbers perspective, no one in Raleigh is going to be fooled.
We can’t expect to be given more State resources if we are neglecting to use what we already have.
How would you go about easing the backlog of cases currently in our court system?
First of all, anyone who blames COVID for the current situation with respect to the court backlog is either ignorant of the facts, or they are lying to you to excuse their own complicity.
Our judges and district attorneys simply have to come to work, and do the job they are elected and paid to do.
Currently there are hundreds of defendants in this county who are out on bond.
We have people awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges for over four years, for sexual assaults even longer.
You don't have to have a law degree to know that that's not justice — it's not fair to the accused and their families, and it's not fair to the victims of those crimes.
As a Superior Court Judge, I will make it a priority to meet with our new District Attorney and arrange for the court to prioritize our older cases.
We will have to schedule more sessions of court, and break the habit of ending trial weeks of court on Monday or Tuesday with no cases tried.
All of this is in the service of changing the culture of our courts here in Halifax County.
We have to send a message to attorneys and citizens on both sides of the courtroom that we will be aggressive about trying cases.
I firmly believe that if we handle the cases we have now in an appropriate manner, we can discourage repeat offenders.
As it stands right now, too many people are being arrested, released, and their pending cases left unresolved. That doesn’t do anything to discourage them from future criminal behavior.
Many in the general public have a misunderstanding of the way bonds work, not realizing they are not a form of punishment but a means to assure a defendant's appearance in court. Do you support an overhaul of the bond system? Do you believe they are adequate?
I've written extensively on bonds previously on this website, and would encourage readers to review that article.
Within my first week, I'll revise the county’s bond policy and make certain that it provides appropriate guidance to our magistrates who set the majority of pretrial bonds.
It is literally the job of the Superior Court Judge to set this policy, as it is the job of our Chief District Court Judge to police the magistrates to make sure they follow it.
That said, bonds shouldn't be used as a form of punishment, nor are they meant to hold someone in jail for long periods of time.
Halifax County simply does not have the space or resources to hold everyone charged with crimes, even violent crimes, for years and years while the court system continues their cases month after month.
But higher bond amounts become less significant if we are resolving cases in a timely manner. Ultimately the solution for most of our problems is that our court personnel have to work harder and resolve cases quicker.
How would you address the seemingly rising tide of youthful offenders committing violent crimes? What needs to be done to prevent this?
I’ve represented criminal defendants for almost twelve years now, and I was a prosecutor for two years before that.
I do feel that I have seen an uptick in youthful offenders committing violent crimes, and it correlates directly with the increasing backlog in our court system.
Like many of your readers, I see the same offenders who are arrested and bonded out multiple times without ever being brought to trial on any of their cases.
Our courts are directly complicit in this rise in criminal behavior, by not handling cases in a timely fashion when they’re charged.
We are not teaching young people that there are consequences for their actions.
They have stopped believing that fire is hot, because they’ve looked around, and no one is getting burned.
As I stated earlier, I have also represented many people in expungements over the years.
I have seen many situations where middle-aged clients in their forties and fifties have come to me because they were convicted of a single crime in their teens or early twenties, but they have had no new charges ever since.
That experience says to me that if we handle youthful criminal offenders appropriately when they are charged, we can in many cases deter them from future offenses, and from becoming lifelong criminals.
But to get to that point, we have to have a judge who will hold court and effectively use our trial sessions.
Who has been your biggest influence in your career?
Gilbert Chichester. Words cannot express how much I learned from him over the last decade.
I have been so proud over the years to call him a friend and colleague, and to be able to practice law across the office from him.
His death was a huge loss for our community, and for me personally.
Between this campaign, and juggling my law practice while trying to resolve Gilbert’s cases, I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it yet.
Please provide a brief summation of what the superior court system would be like under your leadership.
We have a lot of work to do over the next few years, and I will be present to do that work. Clearing out years and years of case backlog is not going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to happen without our courts working much harder than they are now.
My goal over the next few years is to make it clear to the District Attorney’s Office and the defense bar, as well as the general public, that our county is not going to tolerate cases getting continued over and over.
I am also going to be radically transparent in the way that I handle all continuances and bond matters.
If I reduce or increase a defendant’s bond in a case, I will make written findings explaining my basis for doing so, i.e., if the State has failed to prosecute the case, or if the defendant has received new charges.
I want to restore faith in our court system here in Halifax County, and I believe the best way to do that is to show our citizens that I am being fair and working hard for them.