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Friday, May 11, 2012

National Judicial Reform Needed

Mecklenburg District Judge John Totten faces three challengers in re-election bid
The Charlotte Observer News by Gary L. Wright  -  April 27, 2012

Four years ago, Ben Thalheimer was ousted from his judgeship by millionaire socialite Bill Belk who had campaigned to reform the court system. Thalheimer had been the judge who awarded Belk’s ex-wife more than half of their $4.9 million in assets.  Belk is gone – banned by the N.C. Supreme Court from ever again holding a judgeship in North Carolina.  Now Thalheimer has his sights set on ousting a judge. He’s targeted Mecklenburg District Judge John Totten, who like Belk, has gotten into trouble with the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission for misconduct.  Thalheimer isn’t Totten’s only challenger. Two other lawyers – David Strickland and Kary Watson – are hoping to unseat the judge.  Totten will have to be among the two top vote-getters in May’s primary to get a chance to keep his judgeship. The two with the most votes will square off in November’s general election.  Thalheimer and Watson are questioning Totten’s performance on the bench.  “Sadly, Judge Totten has acted in a manner that has brought disgrace to the District Court,” Thalheimer said. “His actions have continued a disturbing trend started by Judge Bill Belk in which judges have disregarded the law and ignored the ethical obligations of the position…We need to reinstate the integrity of the office.”  Watson said: “Judges should be held to the highest standards of professional ethics, personal integrity, knowledge and application of the law. In recent years, the actions of a few have tarnished the public’s perception of our judiciary, leading some to question the fairness and impartiality of our judicial system.”  Totten wouldn’t talk with the Observer about his re-election bid. “I have no comment,” the judge said.  In March 2010, N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker suspended Totten from the bench.  The suspension followed complaints about what sources described as Totten’s inappropriate comments to court personnel. In some of those remarks, the sources said, Totten had recounted experiences at a bar and restaurant and described women’s bodies and how scantily they were dressed.

When Totten returned to the bench in July 2010, the judge issued a statement expressing regret in making what he described as “offensive” remarks to associates.  Totten also disclosed that he has Wegener’s granulomatosis, a life-threatening illness affecting the lungs, kidneys and blood. He said his doctors believe a combination of medications and high doses of steroids severely impacted him during the period when the inappropriate remarks were made.  “I am returning to my duties as District Court judge and can assure you that my future conduct will be above reproach,” Totten said in his statement.  Eight months later, the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission charged Totten with misconduct in his handling of a drunken driving case in September 2010. Totten was accused of throwing out a drunken driving defendant’s alcohol level so the man wouldn’t be punished as harshly as state law requires.  Totten was censured in March by the N.C. Supreme Court for misconduct in his handling of the drunken driving case.  The 54-year-old judge, elected to the bench in 2008, got bad ratings for his performance on the bench in a survey of lawyers conducted by the N.C. Bar Association. Totten received a below average score – 2.03 on a scale of 1 to 5 – for his overall performance on the bench. He received a 1.98 score for integrity and impartiality.  A rating of 5 is “excellent,” 4 is “good,” 3 is “average,” 2 is “below average” and 1 is “poor.”  The N.C. Bar Association last week released the results of another statewide survey – this one of the lawyers seeking to oust judges or running for judgeships where the incumbents are not seeking re-election. The lawyers were evaluated on everything from legal ability and integrity and fairness to professionalism and overall performance.  Among the three lawyers seeking to unseat Totten, Kary Watson got the highest marks. She received an overall performance rating of 4.18. David Strickland’s overall performance rating was 3.88, while former judge Ben Thalheimer received a 3.47 overall performance rating.

Watson  -  Kary Watson has spent the past 10 years with the law firm of Horack Talley Pharr & Lowndes. She began her career handling commercial and real estate litigation.  “However, after experiencing a few domestic cases in District Court, it was clear that practicing family law was where I belonged,” she said. “For more than 10 years now, I have been in the trenches of family court, litigating cases both big and small. I have represented hundreds of mothers, fathers and children, and many of my cases have involved new and complex legal issues.”  Watson, 37, said she has taken more than 20 cases to North Carolina’s appellate courts.  “Many times other family law attorneys have trusted me to help their clients navigate the difficult process of prosecuting or defending an appeal,” she said. “Of my appellate cases more than 75 percent resulted in favorable rulings for my clients.”  Watson said she does not know David Strickland and cannot comment about his bid for the judgeship.  “What distinguishes me from the two candidates I know is my work ethic, my actual litigation experience, and the high standards I personally adhere to,” she said. “I am constantly reading and educating myself as to new opinions and changes in the law, both in my area of practice and others.

Strickland -  David Strickland is touting his experience in his campaign to unseat Totten. He says he has spent his entire 10-year legal career working in Mecklenburg’s district courts.  “I want to utilize my experience and legal knowledge by serving the citizens of Mecklenburg County in the forum I know best – District Court,” Strickland, 35, said. “Mecklenburg County deserves a fair, impartial and knowledgeable judge who will enforce the laws of this state to help protect the safety of its citizens. I can fulfill this role if elected.”  Strickland likened a judge’s gavel to the whistle he carries as a basketball referee.  “I have a fair amount of experience making quick, tough calls on basketball courts as a collegiate and high school basketball referee,” he said. “After 15 years of making difficult and sometimes unpopular calls, it’s not hard to understand there is little difference between a whistle and a gavel.”  Asked why he’s seeking to oust Totten, Strickland replied: “I want to serve the citizens of Mecklenburg County and provide effective leadership on the Mecklenburg County District Court bench that all of its citizens can be proud of…Mecklenburg County deserves an ethical judge that can honorably serve its citizens.  “My experience, professionalism, knowledge and fairness make me the best candidate for Judge Totten’s seat.”

Thalheimer  -  Ben Thalheimer says he wants to return to the bench as part of his long-established commitment to public service. He’s worked in the public sector for more than 15 years – as a magistrate and a District Court judge.  “I have an extensive record of service to the community…,” Thalheimer, 59, said. “It is what I enjoy doing. While many of my law school contemporaries chose to work in high-paying prestigious law firms, I chose to devote my career to helping individuals instead of institutions.”  Those efforts, Thalheimer says, range from his volunteer work to aid victims of domestic violence to developing programs that assisted grandparents seeking custody of their abused and neglected grandchildren.  Thalheimer says he’s made “a critical difference” in improving the lives of people – particularly children. “Nothing gives me more pleasure,” he said. “I wish to return to a position that will allow me to continue to have a positive influence on families.”  Thalheimer says he has firmly, fairly and impartially applied the law. The former judge says he has ruled on thousands of family law cases and his decisions have been appealed less than 10 times.  “People should vote for me because of my unsurpassed experience, longtime commitment to the community, both off and on the bench, and my proven record of integrity,” Thalheimer said.


District judge removed from bench; complaints of inappropriate comments
The Charlotte Observer News by Gary L. Wright  -  April 13, 2010
Sources: Action followed complaints about inappropriate comments by Totten.  Mecklenburg District Judge John Totten has been taken off the bench indefinitely by N.C. Supreme Court 

The chief justice did not cite a reason in her order.  Totten's suspension follows complaints about what sources describe as the judge's inappropriate comments to court personnel. In some of those remarks, the sources said, the judge recounted experiences at a bar and restaurant and described women's bodies and how scantily they were dressed.  Reports outlining Totten's comments to court personnel have been sent to the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, according to sources.  Totten, who is in his early 50s and was elected to the bench in 2008, did not return two phone calls from the Observer on Monday afternoon.  Parker's March 26 order was made public Monday by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts in Raleigh.  "It is hereby ordered that District Court Judge John Totten is placed on temporary suspension, that Judge Totten be relieved of all existing and future assignments and sessions of District Court, and that all such assignments be reassigned to other district court judges ... until further notice," Parker wrote in her order.  A spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts said she couldn't talk about why Totten was suspended. That information, she said, is a personnel matter.  Sources have said that Totten has been ill in recent months. He had been on medical leave from late October until he was allowed to return for half days in early January, a court official said. He has held court only seven days since going on medical leave, the court official said.  Totten, who earns more than $109,000 a year, has never been publicly reprimanded and has never had formal charges filed against him. Paul Ross, executive director of the Judicial Standards Commission, would neither confirm nor deny Monday night if a complaint had been filed against Totten.  The commission, which investigates allegations of ethical violations by judges, can issue private letters of caution, or publicly reprimand judges. It can also recommend that the N.C. Supreme Court censure, suspend or remove a judge.  Totten is not the first Mecklenburg district judge to face troubles in the past year. Two judges have been disciplined.  Last April, the standards commission accused Judge Bill Belk of "willful misconduct" for continuing to serve on corporate boards and for behavior during a confrontation with Chief District Judge Lisa Bell.  Belk resigned in November. A week later, the standards commission recommended that the N.C. Supreme Court remove him from the bench. If that happens, he would be banned from ever holding a judgeship in the state.  Last month, the Judicial Standards Commission reprimanded Judge Timothy Smith for outbursts directed at prosecutors who were trying cases against his wife, a public defender. The commission also reprimanded Smith in April 2009 for misusing the power of his judicial office to help his sister in a domestic violence case. - Jim Morrill contributed to this story.


Anonymous said...

A pack of rats and those running will only change the face and not the nature of rat pack. A 75% success rate in appeals means connections to the appeals rat pack. What's needed is an open public examination of all complaints against judges.

marty golubow/dreamerunlimited? said...

hypocrites wearing robes...corrupt judges are a Cancer on Society which must have a forum in which to find justice....snakes, rodents, devils, or whatever you wish to call them....its unimaginable & unacceptable to the American people! These cancers must be "terminated" in any lawful way......condemning themselves to jail? Totally honest law abiding men must reconstitute an open truly professional asteemed occupation?

marty golubow/dreamerunlimited? said...

It is so true...that injustice anywheres is a serious threat to justice everywheres! We as honest lawabiding citizens must have an open forum to voice freedom & matter how disgusting & hideous, it one innocent person should have to stand alone, fighting corruption in this modern society? media attention is needed to overcome these obstacles.....god grant us the power to see help me lord!

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