PAC Sets Controversial Tone in Local Judicial Race
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
Political ads and commercials put out by political action committees can confuse voters. They may not know these things don't actually come from - and may not even be approved by - actual candidates. A case in point is a PAC set up by an Asheboro attorney trying to unseat Rob Wilkins as a District 19B District Court judge.
Charlie Browne started Citizens for a Competent Judiciary, set up its website and has been putting up billboards and signs from that PAC promoting the candidacy of Wilkins' opponent, Jane Redding.
Redding is running for the seat on the bench Wilkins has held since 2008. She says she was surprised when she found out Browne was so ardently supporting her in the race. She didn't know anything about it beforehand.
"It was mixed emotions for me, because it is getting the name out there," Redding said. "Some of the things (Browne) has done are more harsh than what I would have done, and have done."
Wilkins was surprised by Browne's actions as well. All three are Republicans, but the Moore County GOP is backing Wilkins.
"I have been the target of an ongoing smear campaign orchestrated by a disgruntled criminal defense lawyer from Asheboro since January," Wilkins said late Wednesday. "This attorney, and the PAC he organized and is bankrolling with some of his associates, has sent out numerous slick mailers, emails, letters to the editor and other pieces of propaganda to attack me and my record."
One of the mailers goes after a number of decisions Wilkins made on the bench in various cases. Voters getting such material in their mailbox may not notice the fainter type on its lower right corner that says it isn't affiliated with any candidate.
Redding said she would never discuss how she would rule on a case, and will not comment on any of Wilkins' rulings for the same reason. She sees that as improper, barred by judicial ethics. PACs, however, don't have to follow the same rules as judges.
Redding, Browne and Wilkins agree on one thing: District courts deal with matters at the very heart of the lives of the people who come before them.
"No one has more power over ordinary citizens than a District Court judge," Browne said. "They can take your house, take your car, take your children. We cannot afford to have an incompetent judge."
Wilkins says he agrees with that, and that's why people should vote for him.
"I certainly know I am not perfect," Wilkins said. "I know I am going to make mistakes. But look, if an attorney thinks I have made a mistake, they should do the responsible thing and appeal my decision. That's the system that we have."
Over Wilkins' four years on the bench, just six of his rulings have been appealed. Of those, Wilkins said the Court of Appeals affirmed his decisions in four of them; the other two are still pending. None cited by Browne as wrong are among those that were appealed.
Browne still insists Wilkins is not a good judge. Both he and Redding refer to a North Carolina Bar Association survey where attorneys rated judges on "certain qualities that are required of good judges, as well as the judge's 'overall performance.'"
A similar survey rated non-incumbent challengers like Redding. Although not all lawyers rated all qualities, Judge Rob Wilkins was rated by 96 lawyers and Redding by 52. She "won" the survey, consistently rating higher than he did. Wilkins is skeptical of the process. All judges, he said, make enemies by virtue of what they do.
"I have a sneaking suspicion - I can't prove it, of course - given the fact that there are so many of these people that rated me poorly in every category, it leads me to suspect there is something other than a fair and accurate appraisal of my performance going on here," he said. "It leads me to believe it is either a political ax to grind, or a personal ax to grind, or both."
Browne thinks attacks on his PAC as products of the Democratic Party are absurd. He's descended from a long line of loyal members of the Grand Old Party, he says, since the days President William McKinley appointed his great-grandfather a postmaster.
"That was before I was old enough to vote," Browne says with a laugh.
The ire Browne has toward Wilkins led him to file a request that Wilkins be barred from sitting in cases where he appears. Just before a scheduled hearing on that matter, with Pinehurst lawyer James R. Van Camp representing the judge, Wilkins voluntarily recused himself from any of Browne's cases until May of next year.
Browne says he, his son, some local Asheboro lawyers and others in District 19B started the PAC to put out information they thought voters needed.
"We needed to educate the public," he said Wednesday morning in a telephone interview. "We began putting things out to show why we need a new judge. They will say anything. They accused her of running unsuccessfully for the Randolph County Board of Commissioners, but that's a lie. They are trying to link us with Bev Perdue and Jim Black."
He referred to party alerts and a recent email sent by Moore County Republican Party Chair Robert Levy accusing his PAC of being part of a Democratic Party tactic.
Browne's flyers are hitting mailboxes, and his inserts are falling out of newspapers. Redding said she doesn't like their tone and tenor all that much.
"I think the most recent indicated a number of rulings," she said. "I have no personal knowledge of those cases. I can't discuss those. I have tried to keep my campaign focusing on my experience, my results from the bar survey, and those sort of things. That's what my campaign has been focused on."
Redding won't condemn or praise Browne for the manner of his support of her candidacy or his attacks on Wilkins.
"I am not going to condemn or encourage," she said. "He is a private individual. He has freedom of speech just like any other supporters or detractors."
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or jfchappell @gmail.com.
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