The first-ever election campaign for the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court made a stop at UNC on Wednesday as the candidates took part in a symposium at the UNC School of Law.
In an event presented by the N.C. Public Policy Symposium, incumbent Chief Justice Henry Frye and Justice I. Beverly Lake fielded questions from a moderator and the audience for 90 minutes.
Frye and Lake stressed that the meeting was not a debate but an opportunity to exchange ideas and give law students an idea of procedures in the court system.
"This is the only debate of this nature that the two candidates have had, so we're honored that they would join us," said Gene Nichol, dean of the law school.
The moderator's questions led both candidates to discuss their histories and accomplishments as well as the problems they have faced as members of the judicial branch of the state government. The main problem was lack of funding.
"Funding has been a chronic problem - we've been virtually ignored by the legislature," Lake said.
After introductions, moderator John Jernigan, who was the last president of the N.C. Bar Association, asked questions that had been previously submitted by professors at the law school.
If elected, both candidates pledged to improve the judicial branch primarily through improving education.
"The key is education and exposure, which has to some extent fallen by the wayside," Lake said.
Frye said, "I think it's an education problem, but, at the same time, we have to improve the courts."
After the moderator's relatively tame questions, audience members brought up some controversial issues, including the death penalty and gay rights.
"The call for a moratorium on the death penalty is very troubling," Frye said.
Both judges stressed that they are not responsible for implementing the death penalty, but only for its enforcement.
"We take each one of these cases and look at it under a microscope as best as a human eye, mind and soul can do," Lake said. "We do everything we can to ensure that no innocent person receives the ultimate punishment."
The symposium was largely satisfying for the audience. "I think it was a great opportunity for law students to hear two of the most accomplished lawyers and judges (in our state) talk about their lives and views of the law," Nichol said.
Students also appreciated the presentation. "It's a great opportunity for law students to be involved in the political process," said Elizabeth Whitfield, a second-year law student from Charlotte. "It allows us to see the candidates beyond the polarized party lines."
The symposium was not all business, as both candidates tried to dispel common misconceptions about the court system. "The courts are not what you see on TV," Lake said. "It's not `Judge Judy' and all that crap."
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