Court candidate Edmunds: ‘This is not an entry-level job.’

By on June 5, 2016

 One of the primary races set for Tuesday will determine which two of four candidates will square off in November for Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Political handicappers see the two most likely candidates to advance as incumbent Justice Robert H. Edmunds Jr. and Wake County District 10-B Superior Court Judge Michael R. “Mike” Morgan.

The Voice’s Sam Walker interviewed both candidates last week. Here are are highlights of the Edmunds interview followed by audio of the full discussion.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Edmunds Jr.

Sam Walker: This has been a kind of a topsy-turvy situation because of all the changes that happened that forced this primary into the middle of June. Tell us a little more about that.

Edmunds: I used to say my campaign slogan was “stay tuned.” It usually takes about two years to get around the state on these down-ballot elections to get people to know who you are, so that’s what I thought I was facing. In June of 2015 the General Assembly changed the statute for the Supreme Court election to a retention election … and so I changed my campaign accordingly.

A challenge was filed that said retention was unconstitutional under the North Carolina constitution and a panel of judges agreed. The state Board of Elections re-opened filings and three other people filed. The Board of Elections set June 7 as the primary date so it’s been a process that has changed fairly frequently.

SW: Tell us about what the Supreme Court does … There are so many different things that you guys see every time that you have term going on, correct?

Edmunds: We’re the court of last resort in the state and we see all kinds of cases that can affect everybody across the state. Your utility bills, what you pay for gas, water, power. What if the state wants to run a highway through your property, how much the state will have to pay for that, education of your children.

We seem to be getting a fair number of cases dealing with education. We recently had one involving career teachers. Before that we had one involving voucher, criminal cases, redistricting, who you can vote for, where you can vote. All these things come before us.

Many cases do not get a whole lot of attention, but the outcome does affect people. And this race is going to affect how people’s lives are changed or whether or not they change over the next few years.

SW: [These elections] being non-partisan, but there still are political leanings, even on the court, if you will … The shift in balance of power from Democrats to Republicans, the same thing has kind of gone on statewide over the last decade and that’s why this year it seems every race that is on the ballot has got some pretty significant importance.

Edmunds: That’s exactly right. It’s not a new trend, but we do see it accelerating that oftentimes the executive or legislative branches of government, if it’s a ‘hot potato’ they’ll toss it to the court. That’s not something we’re necessarily good at. We’re elected less frequently than members of the General Assembly. If people think we’re a political branch because we are tossed so many of these political issues, that’s not necessarily the case. We’re a legal branch. We’re trying to decide what the law says and what the constitution says.

SW: Why should voters pick you on Tuesday?

Edmunds: Pretty straightforward — I’ve been on Supreme Court for 16 years and was on the intermediate court, the Court of Appeals, for two years; that’s 18 years of total experience. This is not an entry-level job. We are on top of the legal heap in North Carolina. I’m the only candidate with any experience on either court. I’m the only candidate that is a veteran. I’m the only candidate with an advanced legal degree.

What I try to tell people since judges are, for the most part, not well known, my entire record, every case I’ve written, every opinion I written for the court is available on the Internet. You can read them. They’re all out there. My entire record is an open book. You don’t have to guess what kind of judge I’ll be or justice I’ll dispense.

I’ve got a reputation. I’ve got bi-partisan support among lawyers, law enforcement officers, sheriffs. I think that’s representative of somebody who has established themselves as being someone who is a student, someone who is devoted to the rule of law, and not somebody who is pushing any particular agenda.

SW: You’ve been endorsed by a number of your colleagues and just about every sheriff in the state…

Edmunds: I’ve been endorsed by over 90 (of the sheriffs). I’m proud of that. I’ve been endorsed by former chief justices of this court, former chief judges of the Court of Appeals, many of the former presidents of the State Bar and the State Bar Association. And this is a group of people who first of all know a lot about the kind of work we do on the court, and second, they’re pretty decisive people in their own right. They can make up their own minds, and when they tend towards one candidate, which is me, I hope the voters will take something from that.

SW: How has the court tried to avoid or been affected by the ideological shift in the state?

Edmunds: During the time I’ve been on it, we’ve had both male and female chief justices. We were, for a while, a majority female court, so there have been changes and in many ways. they are are reflective of the larger North Carolina society. I entirely enjoy working with my colleagues. We sometimes see things different, and people, maybe it’s because of the media, people tend to look at the court or the court’s work for political ends. But I would argue that is not really the best way to do it.

The majority of our opinions are unanimous opinions because we’re dealing with legal issues and the law leads us, directs us, into a particular direction whatever our leanings in other fields are. We’re almost never writing on a blank slate. We tend to do now what we’ve (as a court) done in the past.

What you don’t want and others would not want is somebody whose interest in coming onto the court is to put their own particular agenda into practice. We’re following the constitution and the laws passed by the General Assembly. It’s not our job to say if they are good laws or wise laws. Our question is are they constitutional, are they legal? That’s the work we do.

Looking at the court people ought to be able to feel there is a degree of continuity in what we do, so if they write a contract it’s not going to be upset tomorrow because someone (on the Supreme Court) changes their minds about how contracts should be written.

I think I bring that kind of consistency to the court.

Listen to entire interview here:

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