Local Judicial Race Heats Up
The race for a District Court judge seat has turned hotter than expected.
District Court Judge Scott Etheridge is facing opposition from a fellow Republican, Kristian Allen, in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan election for the seat in Judicial District 19-B, which includes Moore, Randolph and Montgomery counties. Both are from Asheboro.
It isn't turning out that way.
When her signs showed up at both political party's headquarters in Randolph County, Republican Party Chairman Art Pugh pulled them.
"It is a nonpartisan race," Allen said. "Both of us happen to be Republicans. I am the only person who filed to run against him (Etheridge). Forced to choose a person to run against, I picked the one who had been in for only one term. I picked the person who had been (on the bench) the shortest amount of time."
Allen suggested that the action has more to do with a woman challenging a man than party politics.
"I am the only female challenging another Republican man in our district," she says. "Only one of six District Court judges is a woman -- Jayrene Maness. We need more."
Party has nothing to do with it, she says.
"I am a Republican," she said. "He is a Republican. Both of us had our signs at the Republican party headquarters. I had been asked to speak at Democratic event, and I left materials. Alan Pugh took my signs down at the Republican headquarters.
"I told him, 'It is a nonpartisan race.' He says, 'As long as I am party chairman, there will be no one who has signs (with the Democrats) who has them here. We consider these races to be partisan.' It seems a tacit endorsement of my opponent."
Reports have suggested Allen was recruited by defense lawyers unhappy with Etheridge's harsh sentences. Allen denies this vehemently.
"I feel privileged to practice law and to prosecute," she says. "I want to be a judge because I have something to add to our court system. No one asked me to run."
There is no such thing as a nonpartisan race, Etheridge says.
"They call it nonpartisan, but it is hypocritical to call it that," he says. "It's never been that on a state level. Look at what the Democrats have done, especially in the eastern part of the state where they are strong. At rallies, they let you know who is who. My opponent had her press conference at the office of one of the most prominent defense lawyers in town."
When Pugh pulled her material, Etheridge's stayed put. Etheridge doesn't see anything wrong with that. Despite judicial races being nominally "nonpartisan" state-wide, party politics always plays its part.
Etheridge absolutely believes judges need to face voters.
"I worked under the appointment system," he says. "Somebody like me, from a broken home and raised by a single mom, would see people appointed who were 'connected.' I'm not connected."
Etheridge prefers people choose those who will judge them.
"Every race is tough," he says. "You never know how it will turn out. I have never underestimated an opponent."
Etheridge, who has been on the bench for just one term, is campaigning hard.
"I go house to house, door to door," he says. "I hand them a card and ask them to vote for me. I have the support of law enforcement. DSS (Division of Social Services) likes to see my rotation. Every major law-enforcement organization says, 'We like what he is doing in court.' Sen. Tillman has endorsed me. Your sheriff has. My sheriff has."
Voters will make an important choice.
"A District Court judge is faced with monumental decisions," he says. "Who goes to prison? Who gets the return of their child, and who does not?"
Etheridge says he does everything he can to run a fair race. Supporters once put his signs on top of Allen's.
"I spent two hours moving my signs off the top of hers, putting them over to the side," he says. "I don't see any other candidates doing something like that."
Etheridge earned a bachlor's degree from Old Dominion University in 1994 and recevied his law degree from Campbell University.
Etheridge and his wife, Angel, have a son, Elijah, and a step-son, Hunter Allred.
Allen is a member of the First Baptist Church in Asheboro, where he teaches senior high Sunday school.
Allen says she has no criticism of Etheridge. She just wants to be a judge. Allen has sat on both sides of the aisle, having begun her profession in private practice before crossing to the prosecution table.
"I've seen how the court system works," she says. "I have had to deal with other attorneys, judges, defendants and victims. My office is in Troy, but I live in Asheboro."
Her husband works for UPS. Born in Winston-Salem, Allen graduated fromthe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in political science. She studied law at Campbell University. She and her husband have two children. They are restoring a 100-year-old house in Ashboro.
"I've been an assistant district attorney for six years, prosecuting criminal cases in juvenile, District and Superior courts," she said. "Most of my jury trials have been in Montgomery County."
While Moore County will comprise a single prosecutorial district with its own district attorney next year, at present it shares District Attorney Garland Yates with Montgomery and Randolph counties. His office is in Ashboro, with branch offices in Carthage and Troy.
Allen has been assigned principally to Montgomery County and her headquarters is in the Troy office. Allen likes the work.
"I sometimes think, 'I don't believe they pay me to do this!' -- and that's not only fighting for victims, especially in child sexual abuse cases," she said. "It is also about what happens to convicted people. Sometimes prison helps them, because it has a strong effect on drugs. Eighty-five to 90 percent of property crime is drug-related. That's my opinion, but the statistics show everything comes back to drugs."
Watching case after case pass before the bar over her six years, Allen came to feel she should try for the bench herself.
"I feel I have what it takes to run the court, and do it efficiently," she said. "I don't like to 'take a break' so often -- it ends up making the day longer. I don't like having court go past 5 o'clock -- not for District Court. I have two children, and would worry I'm not going to get back before they call Social Services to come pick them up."
Bailiffs, jurors, witnesses, attorneys and others involved have the same kind of concerns, Allen said. The court day needs to be managed in a regular and predictable way. Judges control that.
"For a lot of the misdemeanor cases we prosecute, seven times out of 10, things are going so fast," she said. "People new to court often don't understand. Judges need to have an understanding and compassion for the human condition."
John Chappell can be reached at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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