CORRECTION: a previous version of this article misstated where candidate Hathaway Pendergrass grew up. He is a Carrboro native. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.
There are four candidates to choose from in the March 3 Democratic primary election for district court judge, and each has a different vision on how to improve the local court system.
North Carolina is divided into over 40 district courts, with District 15b covering Orange and Chatham counties. The courts hear civil cases involving less than $25,000 and misdemeanors. District courts also handle juvenile and magistrate cases, including small claims and evictions.
Lamar Proctor moved to Orange County in 2004 and worked as a prosecutor and later as a public defender. He said he has more than 20 years of legal experience.
He said he is committed to progressive justice reform and addressing issues such as mass incarceration, racial inequity and the criminalization of poverty in the court system.
“We shouldn’t just keep our foot on the necks of the poor,” Proctor said.
Proctor said his campaign focuses on experience, fairness, integrity and respect. He said he is an active member of the community through volunteering, and he wants to treat everyone who enters the court system with respect, regardless of who they are.
“Most people who come into the court system don’t really want to be there, and it’s usually somebody who, in many cases, it may be their worst day of the year or worst day of the week, coming into court,” Proctor said.
Proctor said he wants to ensure people know how the district court judge position impacts the community.
Erika Bales said she was encouraged to run for district judge because the seat requires a candidate with experience in many areas of law. As an attorney with a general practice, Bales said she has that experience.
“I think it’s important that we have a judge that is very, very familiar with the intricacies of the rules of civil procedure, the rules of evidence, the rules of criminal law, and are able to understand and follow them,” she said.
To Bales, campaigning in this election has its own unique challenges.
"A judge’s job is not to change the law. A judge’s job is to apply the law as it is written, and as we understand it, to the facts as they appear before us,” she said.
Bales said a lot of her fellow candidates focus on a few specific issues, like bail reform, but that issues in criminal law aren’t the only ones causing problems in the court system.
"It’s that depth and that breadth of that experience that allows you to see the interplay of all of these issues, that they’re not isolated from one another and often play off of each other,” she said.
Bales said a judge’s job is to maintain the integrity of the court by maintaining impartiality as much as possible. She said campaigning and fundraising runs counter to what a judge’s role is.
Bales said she has done very limited fundraising.
“The idea of judges declaring parties and having to raise funds, when we are supposed to be impartial fact finders, is counterintuitive and they don’t align ethically in my mind, and ethics are very important to me,” she said.
Hathaway Pendergrass is a Carrboro native and UNC graduate who practices law in Chapel Hill.
He has worked for many community organizations including the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, Teen Court through Volunteers for Youth, the Orange County and Carrboro planning boards and Empowerment Inc.
“You really need to have a pulse on the community to do the best job possible," he said.
He said he wants to treat everyone who comes before him with the same dignity, respect and compassion.
Pendergrass said having an equity lens when looking at people and their cases is how he plans to go about making decisions as a judge.
“Understanding who they are and their different situation is extremely important to me,” he said.
Pendergrass said he is a big proponent of recovery court. This court focuses on providing treatment alternatives to incarceration for those who face drug charges to keep them out of the prison system.
“You’re treating the underlying issue and what’s going on in that person’s life, versus just putting them in the normal criminal process that won’t treat the underlying issue,” he said.
Going to where voters are, meeting them and listening to what they want to see in the system is something Pendergrass noted as an important part of his campaign.
He also said his ties to the Orange and Chatham county areas are important to his ability to be district court judge.
Noah Oswald said he has 15 years of practical legal experience in Orange and Chatham counties.
He wants to focus on alleviating the things in the court system that frustrate people by listening to people and explaining things to them.
“We have got to do a better job at incorporating technology into our courtrooms,” he said.
Streamlining the court system to make the processes and scheduling easier is something he wishes to accomplish as a judge.
He said he wants to make sure that people are educated about bias and how it affects them, and that people who come to court are treated with respect and dignity.
“When we go out in the public and talk with folks, I think that it’s good to hear the concerns of people that have been engaged in the system in various capacities,” Oswald said.
Oswald said his current job has given him the experience of running a courtroom. That experience, he said, helped him learn the difference between when a judge looks at the people they’re listening to and engages with them, and just working to get through the docket as quickly as possible.
“Our judicial officials can’t just be a cold face that sits up there on the bench and doesn’t respond,” he said. "Our judges can respond to those things and talk with the person and really show a little bit of personal care.”
Seeing people who don’t get that treatment, Oswald said, renews his commitment to try to do that with every person, and adapt individually to what they need.
Residents can register and vote on the same day during early voting, Feb. 13 through Feb. 29. Proof of residency in Orange County is required during voter registration at early voting. Voters can access sample ballots and voting locations at the Board of Elections website, and Election Day is March 3.