Photo courtesy of Charles Bullock
The 11th Judicial District race between incumbent Charles Bullock and challenger Mary Howard Wells is far from heated. Both candidates describe themselves as fair and conservative, stressing that they would interpret the law as written instead of legislating from the bench.
Bullock even passed on the chance to draw a contrast with his opponent. “Ms. Wells has been in my courtroom maybe four times,” he said. “I can’t tell you how I differ; I don’t know her.”
Conventional wisdom says one purpose of campaigning is to separate yourself from your opponent — to let voters know why you’re better qualified to hold elected office. It is harder to do that in judicial elections. The candidates could come before one another in court, so they’re careful not to offend. Also, judicial ethics keep candidates from being totally open about their stances on legal issues. Add those factors to the fact that judicial races are nonpartisan, and it can be hard to separate one candidate from the next.
But Wells and Bullock differ from one another in at least one area: their backgrounds.
After graduating from the Campbell University Law School in 2003, Bullock went to work for a small firm in Angier. But most of his career as a lawyer — three years in all — was spent as a prosecutor working under former district attorney Tom Lock and then under current DA Susan Doyle. He was appointed to the bench in 2008 and won election the same year.
Wells, a graduate of the Regent University School of Law, has operated a private practice in Clayton since 2003. Most of her cases are domestic matters like separation, custody and divorce, although she has some criminal experience. She believes her experience running her own firm gives her a unique perspective.
“I built my law practice,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be in the private sector and have to drum up your own business.”
The state bar association’s 2012 judicial candidate survey offers voters another way to distinguish between candidates. Attorneys from around the state rated their colleagues on several criteria, including legal ability, professionalism and integrity on a five-point scale. Each candidate also receives an overall performance score. Bullock earned higher scores across the board, including a 3.83 overall rating compared to Wells’ 3.38. He was not willing to comment on the reasons he scored higher.
“I was rated higher by the North Carolina Bar Association,” he said. “But I certainly can’t comment on Ms. Wells — I think it would be a violation of judicial ethics.”
Wells sees the results as suspicious. Like LeVonda Wood, another District 11 challenger, Wells wonders how so many people — 79 attorneys in all — rated her performance. “The numbers don’t add up,” she said. “There’s no way 79 attorneys have worked closely enough with me to evaluate my performance.”
Wells also questions the premise of the survey, that candidates who have never worked as judges can be rated on the same scale as sitting judges. She said it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. “They’re projecting how an attorney wold work as a judge,” she said. “How do you evaluate an attorney as a sitting judge when they’ve never been a judge? They’re very different roles.”
Bullock has been a judge for the past five years, and he’s sees his experience as a significant advantage. “I am more than qualified to retain my seat,” he said. “If they can’t tell you why someone should be replaced, I don’t know if there’s a good enough reason.”