I attended the Judicial Nominating Committee public meeting today at the Blue Ribbon Circle. The meeting began at 9:00 a.m. and lasted until shortly before 1:00 p.m. As you will recall from my earlier post, there were 5 candidates: John Norton, Mike Randles, Forest Durard, Brooke Grubb and Barbara Medley. The vacancy was created by the retirement of Judge Robert Crigler prior to the end of his term. Judge Crigler served the 17th Judicial District (Bedford, Lincoln, Marshall and Moore counties), by presiding over Part I of the Circuit Court. Judge Crigler handled all Circuit Court criminal cases in Lincoln, Marshall and Moore counties and A and B felony cases in Bedford County. He did not typically handle any civil cases in any county.
The meeting began promptly at 9:00 a.m. with 14 members of the Judicial Nominating Committee present. They sat at a long table at the front of the room facing the candidates and the audience. There was a podium stationed in front of the members. I would estimate attendance between 75-100 people. The Chairman explained how the day would progress. It began with each candidate being allowed 5 minutes each to introduce themselves or have someone else introduce them and explain why they each would be a good candidate. After that, there would be a period in which members of the community would be able to speak for and against a candidate for up to 2 minutes per person. Finally, there would be a question and answer session led by members of the commission.
The candidates proceeded in reverse alphabetical order. Mike Randles introduced himself to the commission and provided a passionate plea for the position. Next, Thomas Smith, Circuit, General Sessions and juvenile Court Clerk for Bedford County introduced John Norton giving him a strong endorsement. Walter Bussart, an experienced and well-respected member of the Marshall County bar, next introduced Barbara Medley highlighting her qualities. A retired soldier introduced Brooke Grubbs and discussed his integrity and leadership. Finally, Forest Durard introduced himself and focused on his past history of being a self motivated hard worker beginning at the age of 16 and continuing as he worked his way through both college and law school.
Only one member of the public offered any support or opposition for a candidate. It was an attorney from Manchester who I have never met or worked with and her name escapes me at the moment of drafting this post. She spoke in opposition to John Norton based on his alleged violation of the child custody statutes when he withheld returning a step-grandchild to the biological mother last summer. Additionally, this attorney claimed that Mr. Norton continued to drink alcohol.
Next, the commission called each candidate back to the podium individually to field questions. Again, Mike Randles was first to face the fire. The commission discussed his experience on both sides of the bar (defense and prosecution), however, it quickly focused on Mr. Randles conduct as a prosecutor in 2 criminal cases. Mr. Randles handled himself well in his responses to the terse questions. In closing, one of the commissioners asked Mr. Randles if he were not selected by the Governor to fill this vacancy, would he run for the position next year through the election process. Mr. Randles advised that he would, unless the candidate chosen was Forest Durard. His reasoning was that Forest was a dear friend of his and he would not run against a friend.
Mr. Norton was next up and the commission again quickly expressed acceptance on his lengthy and vast career providing him with the most diverse experience of any candidate. However, the commission expressed concern with Mr. Norton on several issues. First, the number of failed marriages, then his history of substance abuse, his disciplinary history with the Board of Professional Responsibility including numerous private censors he failed to include in his application and over 50 complaints. Finally, the commission seemed concerned about Mr. Norton’s finances based on certain facts disclosed in his application. Mr. Norton, in a way that only he can, colorfully explained his situation and his belief that he had overcome any of his prior problems and that he should be considered on his body of work over the last decade. He, too, claimed that he would seek the position next year if he were not appointed.
Mrs. Medley was up next. The commission fielded her much softer questions seemingly only concerned with her relative lack of experience in criminal court. Mrs. Medley explained that she had some experience and that it was possible that the division of responsibilities between Part I and Part II as it relates to criminal and civil cases could be modified by agreement of the judges. She also claimed she would seek election next year if not picked.
Brooke Grubbs was up next. The commission once again had relatively few questions for him. The ones they did have seemed to be more focused on his experience in the military. Like, Mr. Norton, Brooke’s voice commanded attention.
Finally, Forest Durard approached the podium. Again, the commission fielded softball questions, primarily because there are seemingly no skeletons in Forest’s closets and no areas of concern. Forest is a competent and diligent lawyer with many years experience on both sides of the bar. He is a hard worker and a good man.
Once the question and answer section was completed, the commissions took a first ballot vote. The requirements were that for a candidate to be recommended to the Governor, they had to have at least 9 votes from the commission members present. Each commissioner was required to provide 3 names on the first ballot. After the first vote was tallied, Forest and Brooke each received 13 votes. Barbara had 8 votes, John 6 and Mike 2. As such, Forest and Brooke were through. Commission rules state that the candidate with the least votes after the first ballot is disqualified. Therefore, Mike Randles was no longer in consideration.
The commission took another vote. This vote was John 8 votes and Barbara 6 votes. This required another vote. The third vote came back tied at 7-7. After still being tied a couple of more rounds, 2 members of the commission openly spoke in favor of Mr. Norton. The next vote was John with 8 votes and Barbara with 6. After 2 other commission members spoke out against Mr. Norton, another vote was taken that resulted in Barbara having 8 votes and John having 6. At that point, a member of the commission made a motion to adjourn the meeting without making any recommendation. This motion was seconded and opened for discussion. Another member spoke out against the motion stating that if approved, the commission would be shirking their responsibilities to the Governor. He moved to have one more vote and the full commission agreed. This vote came back with Barbara having 10 votes and John having 4.
It really was an interesting experience. Of course, I know all of the candidates and believe that all of them can adequately perform the duties. It appeared to me that there were some pretty strong political forces working against Mike Randles for whatever reason. It’s a shame, really, as he has the most daily experience in Circuit Court Part I of all the candidates. Brooke has the least experience legally as his career has been solely in the criminal prosecution side of the law. However, he is a military man who has faithfully served our country and sacrificed for our freedom. How can you argue with that? Barbara will be an utmost professional in this position if selected. However, there would likely be a bit longer learning curve on the criminal side of things as opposed to the other candidates. Forest is my sleeper pick. He is just a really good guy. That guy you want to have over to watch football games with. (except when he forces my wife to adopt a dog from the shelter, then I want to harm him-just being honest here, right?) He knows both sides of criminal practice and he knows civil cases. No question he would be fair to all and no worries about secret allegiances to one side or the other. He will make a great judge. Finally, last, but certainly not least, my mentor, John Norton. If you could take all of John’s positive qualities and leave off the negative one’s, he would be a no brainer selection for the position. He has the most experience, the most diverse experience of any candidate for judge in this district in my lifetime. He even looks judicial. He would also be the most colorful judge around and handle Court in a very unique manner. However, we cannot escape our past. Your record speaks for itself, both good and bad. For this process, the many divorces, the disciplinary problems, the substance abuse and reputation issues are a lot of baggage to overcome in a political process. If he had been selected, he would have been a great judge. If he holds to his word and seeks election to this position next year, the baggage that held him back today may very well be overcome by name recognition alone throughout the district. Of the 3 candidates who were recommended to the Governor, none of them have strong name recognition outside their own county. John will not have this problem. This means that whoever is selected by the Governor could well be a temporary fill in judge.
Just my thoughts.