In my previous article, The NC Supreme Court Races, I outlined the main events and the candidates in each one. In this installment, I’ll be looking at the Chief Justice race. The current Chief Justice is Sarah Parker, who will be retiring this year on her 72nd birthday as per North Carolina state law. Running for this top position are Mark Martin and Ola Lewis. Whichever candidate is elected will serve for the next eight years. Here’s a closer to look, starting with ladies first.
About Ola Lewis
Judge Ola Lewis presides over the 13B Judicial District of the Fourth Division of the Superior Court. This division serves Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties. Her term there doesn’t expire until 2018. In her last election in 2010, Lewis ran unopposed. For more information and a timeline of her career, visit Judgepedia.
Judge Lewis has an about page on her website which gives the basic profile and background. Here’s the opening paragraph, which includes that she served former Speaker of the House, Dan Blue:
Judge Lewis graduated from Fayetteville State University in 1986 and received her Juris Doctorate from North Carolina Central University in 1990. Upon successfully passing the Bar in 1990, She served as a law clerk to the Honorable Speaker of the House, Dan Blue, in his firm of Thigpen, Blue, Stephens and Fellers in Raleigh. Hired as an Assistant District Attorney for the 13th Prosecutorial District (Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties) she went on to become the youngest and first female African-American Judge in Brunswick County. Judge Lewis is currently the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for District 13 B.
Highlights and other relevant details include being a former Democrat and Former Governor Hunt appointee.
Lewis began her law career 22 years ago as Democrat. She was an Assistant District Attorney serving in Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus Counties from 1991-1993. She was appointed to the District Court Bench in 1993 by then Governor Jim Hunt. After seven years Lewis was appointed by Governor Hunt to the Superior Court Bench.
In 2002 she successfully ran for the position of Resident Superior Court Judge. Shortly after winning that election, Lewis switched parties and joined the GOP.
In 2010 Lewis ran unopposed for her current position as Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for Brunswick County. – WECT
More on that party switch back in 2003 and mention of her appointment to the Superior Court by Former Governor Hunt:
Superior Court Judge Ola M. Lewis of Brunswick County on Thursday switched her registration from Democrat to Republican. Lewis is one of two black female Superior Court judges in the state. She was appointed by Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and won election this past November.
Lewis said the Republican Party “embraced me for who I am and did not expect anything from me.”
She said the “Democratic leadership was not sympathetic to me during my campaign last fall.” – News and Observer
About that last statement — Two Democrats in Superior Court spots were up for reelection in the campaign Lewis speaks of. It would appear that perhaps the Democrat party backed the incumbents. As a result of that backing, it would appear Lewis changed her affiliation and then ousted one of those incumbents. For whatever reasons, feathers looked to have been ruffled.
Speaking of ruffled feathers, it would appear Judge Lewis has done some ruffling of her own in the Brunswick Republican party. In an op-ed at WWAY3, an ABC affiliate, there is mention of Judge Lewis with regard to a libel case and another involving young drivers classes and traffic court. The WWAY op-ed said Lewis likes to ‘throw these kind of grenades and run’.
More detail on the traffic court complaint and the anger around it in the Brunswick Republican party can be found in another article at WWAY: Judge Lewis’s role in David-Jolly battle causing Republican rift
The decision on the libel case was initially split on two separate posts (one on a blog and one on Facebook) by activist Ed Rapp. Rapp’s attorneys argued Rapp’s comments were protected under the First Amendment. The final decision didn’t agree; Lewis would be awarded $105,000 for the libel charge. The details of that case are well worth reading: Jury rules in favor of judge in libel suit; awards $105,000
In another story involving the First Amendment, media were barred from the Brunswick County Bar Association meeting in May of 2011.
When we tried attending the meeting, we were escorted out by a sheriff’s deputy and told it was “private meeting.” When we followed up, we were told that Brunswick County Judge Ola Lewis had requested security for the meeting to keep anyone from coming in.
We called Judge Lewis and reminded her that the Bar Association was meeting in a public building (the courthouse) and using tax-payer resources (sheriff’s deputies) to run security for the meeting, therefore it should be open to the media and public in general. She said they always had their meetings there, and even though it didn’t look good, said the meeting should be closed. -WWAY3 ABC
Election Musical Chairs
So what’s being said about the reason for Lewis dropping out of the Beasley race, where she would have been a clear front-runner, and into the Chief Justice race? Depends who you ask.
Lewis was recently quoted as saying “political gamesmanship” was responsible for her getting into the Chief Justice race against Sr. Associate Justice Mark Martin. There is an implication here that Lewis was upset when Mike Robinson entered the Beasley race, making it a three-way run requiring a primary to reduce the number to two candidates. From that implication, one might wonder if Robinson had the GOP encouraging him to run, but attempts to verify such an attempt have not panned out. Regardless of what groups did or did not encourage Robinson to enter the race, the net effect for Lewis in hopping into the Chief Justice race has not been positive coming from the Republicans. Read more: Ola Lewis says ‘political gamesmanship’ influenced her decision to run for chief justice
Local outlet, The Beaufort Observer, isn’t mincing words and calls Lewis’s actions ‘backstabbing‘ and highlights a nice chunk of money raised by Martin and Newby, which will now be used in the race against him:
For months, Ola Lewis has been telling people she was running for an Associate Justice seat on the state Supreme Court. She is a black Republican Superior Court judge from the southeastern part of the state. She got GOP Justices Mark Martin and Paul Newby to raise $50,000 for that race for her. However, she held off on filing until the last day and failed to show up for the NCGOP ExCom meeting last Saturday, where the other judicial candidates appeared. Now at the last minute she has filed for Chief Justice against Mark Martin. She will use the $50,000 Martin helped raise for her against him instead of against the Democrat appointee she claimed to be running against. Ola Lewis has revealed herself as totally dishonest, a thoroughgoing liar, and a backstabber. This conwoman does not belong in any type of black robe. Those who have given her money should demand it back, and if she doesn’t return it, file an ethics complaint with the State Bar against her. Lewis is slime.
Editor’s note: Attempts to contact Judge Lewis to get her comments on this reader’s post have been unsuccessful. We will post any response she wishes to offer if/when she furnishes us one.
A related item on the donations for viewing: Carolina Journal’s Rick Henderson discusses Judge Ola Lewis’ surprise run for chief justice
I’ve also reached out to Judge Lewis for comment, specifically asking for more clarification on her “political gamesmanship” reference. When and if she responds, I’ll update accordingly. (SEE UPDATE: NC Supreme Court Races: Chief Justice Race Updates)
Beyond the “political gamesmanship” remark, another statement drew my interest which was published by the News and Observer’s Under the Dome blog. The comment was about a ranking of NC’s court’s productivity and it looked similar to the teacher pay ranking theme. The reporter on the story didn’t follow it up, but I did. Here is the section:
In her three-minute address at the district convention, Lewis criticized the high court’s productivity. “Our current Supreme Court is one of the lowest ranked Supreme Court’s in the nation, ranked 36th by way of productivity,” she told Republican activists. “My opponent having only written five opinions in the last year.”
Lewis called herself the “most qualified candidate for the position” and “a natural born leader.”
She finished with this line: “It is time to move North Carolina forward, not to be steeped in mediocrity and complacency.”
Martin, senior associate justice with 15 years on the Supreme Court, countered by saying every chief justice in history had served on the court first.
36th in productivity? By who? What scale? What source? Until one know where that statistic comes from, it should be discarded. The only recent rankings of the High Courts in the states I found was from 2008 out of the University of Chicago. The report gives scores based on productivity, independence and influence. Productivity related to number of opinions. NC in this report ranked 50th out of 52. If we’re now 36th, we’ve apparently made a lot of progress. I have to question thinking it is better to have cranked out a lot of opinions versus having fewer but of good quality and solid judgement.
More to come in the next installment when we look at Senior Associate Justice Mark Martin.
UPDATE: Thank you to Carolina Plott Hound for linking!
*This post has been updated.