Judicial hopefuls make their cases

Published 10:56 am Friday, April 16, 2010

Community Editor

The four candidates seeking the District Court seat being vacated by retiring District Court Judge Sam Grimes held court at the Washington Daily News Candidates Forum on Tuesday evening.
Each got a chance to make his or her case during two-minute opening statements. All said they would be fair and impartial in their rulings, if elected. Two said law-enforcement officers and officials in the 2nd Judicial District would back up such claims.
Jonathan Jones, 40, an assistant district attorney, was the first candidate to speak.
He said in his campaign travels, the people of the 2nd Judicial District, which includes Beaufort County, have made it clear what they want from their judges: to feel safe and feel that the court system is working for them.
“I urge you to ask the people, the law enforcement officers, the clerks of court, do you think Jonathan Jones will be a good judge? I think the answer is ‘Yes,’” Jones said.
Darrell Cayton Jr., 47, a Washington attorney, was next to speak.
Cayton said his vast experience as a private attorney in civil and criminal cases separates him from the other candidates.
“I haven’t been pigeon-holed in my career,” he said, adding that he’s the only candidate that has not been an assistant district attorney.
“And I don’t see that as a disadvantage for the simple reason that the requirements are the same: know the law, understand the facts and evidence and apply the law,” Cayton said.
Sonia Privette, 49, also a Washington attorney, followed Cayton.
She called down his experience as an attorney by noting that she was the oldest candidate for the seat.
“I’ve practiced in every area of the law that a district-court judge presides over,” she said.
Privette said, as a district-court judge, she would implement one of her mother’s greatest life lessons: “Listen, just listen.”
“As a judge, that’s what you’re supposed to do — listen to both sides. Then apply the law that goes in that case and render a fair and impartial verdict,” she said.
Watsi Sutton, 34, a Washington attorney, came next.
She said that, although she’s younger than the other candidates, her candidacy offers a breadth of legal experience.
“I understand that experience is not the sole factor in who will win this race,” she said. “Judges must make decisions that uphold the law, but also must do so in a fair and balanced approach.”
Sutton said that having been a leader in her community, she can be impartial to all the people of the 2nd Judicial District.
“I understand the challenges that we face in this community and am well-prepared and able to represent this community well on the bench,” she said.
After the opening remarks, the night’s moderator, Kellie Harris Hopkins, Beaufort County’s elections director, outlined the judicial contest. She explained that the contest is nonpartisan, which means every voter, regardless of affiliation, will be able to vote for any candidate in the May 4 primary. The top two vote-getters will move onto the general election.
Drug offenders
With the contest explained, Hopkins asked the first of two questions to be answered by the candidates. The question, written by the staff of the Washington Daily News, was, “What concerns do you have about repeat drug offenders?” Each candidate had two minutes to give a response.
Privette said habitual drug offenders are a serious problem in the court system, but that, as a district-court judge, she would look at sentencings on a case-by-case basis.
“As a judge, I have to look at it like, do I have a 16-year-old kid that got caught with a marijuana joint? You have a chance, with that 16-year-old, for some treatment, medication, that kind of thing,” she said. “That versus some hard-core drug users that are unfortunately going to be there in the system.”
Cayton promised to come down hard on repeat offenders.
“If you are a big drug offender, you are causing this community a problem, and we will deal with it in court,” he said.
Cayton said that as a private attorney, he tries to be fair with the drug offenders he represents, but he said does not tolerate probation violations and repeat offenses.
“In representing kids, and even young drug offenders, what I tell them is, ‘I want to give you an opportunity. I’m putting the ball in your court. One of two things is going to happen: either you’re going to run with it and do well and have success, or you’re going to drop it. If you drop it, I still feel good because I put you in a position to succeed,’” he said.
Sutton said repeat drug offenses center on one of two things: addiction or profit-making. Drug users are addicted to the products being sold by drug dealers to make a profit, creating a vicious cycle, she said.
“Sentences need to address the loop problem, and I’m concerned that often times they do not,” she said. “If a judge is fair and balanced and considerate of all the circumstances in a problem-solving approach, they can address some of the root causes.”
Jones said there is a distinct difference between the two types of habitual drug offenders that Sutton mentioned.
“A drug dealer is someone who preys on the disadvantages of somebody,” he said. “I have no tolerance for drug dealers. They take advantage of weak people and make a profit off of it.”
Jones said the only way to stop the cycle is for the community to intervene.
“The court’s not going to fix the system. It’s up to the community to get out and tell them,” he said.
Hopkins then drew a random question proposed by the audience, which read: “As a judge, you will be required to take an oath to uphold and preserve the U.S. Constitution. When was the last time you undertook a serious study of the Constitution, and can you identify one or two areas where you feel the Constitution is being violated today?”
Jones said he last read the Constitution about three months ago, adding that he works with the Constitution everyday.
Jones considers himself a strict constructionist, saying, “I don’t believe judges are up there to decide and make the Constitution something beyond what the original framers made it.”
Jones said the application of laws separating church and state are being “taken too far.”
“No where in the Constitution is that actually stated. It was for the government not to establish a religion,” he said.
Privette said she reads different sections of the Constitution depending on the case she’s working on.
“I can’t sit here and tell you where it’s being abused. It’s different things,” she said.
Privette cited a recent case she handled in which her client, according to her, was been pulled over unlawfully by a Beaufort County sheriff’s deputy. She said took the matter to court, and the judge ruled in favor of her client, determining the deputy violated the Fourth Amendment.
Sutton said that like “any good attorney,” she reviews the Constitution as it applies to the case with which she’s currently involved.
She said the right of due process is being abused by the court system.
“A judge must listen to the evidence and consider that evidence on the basis of the law, impartially,” Sutton said. “Our Constitution states, quite clearly, what those standards are.”
Cayton said the Second and Fourth amendments are often put to the test, but in his line of work he deals with another Constitutional right: a parent’s Constitutional priority concerning the custody of their child or children.
He said parents can waive their right to custody of their children if they are not “doing what is best for their children.”
“Sometimes momma is sorry, and so is daddy,” he said. “We have an awful lot of grandparents … who are raising their grandchildren.”
Closing remarks
The candidates ended the forum with their closing statements.
Sutton said that as a lifelong resident of Washington, and therefore eastern North Carolina, she understands the challenges people in the 2nd Judicial District face.
“District judges must understand the role of a servant,” she said.
Privette said she has given “dedicated service” to the residents of Washington and Beaufort County for 21 years.
“I believe I’ve got the experience and temperament to be a judge,” she said.
Cayton said people have asked him, “Darrell, why do you want to be a judge?”
“Over the last 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to help a lot of individuals, and it’s a great feeling.” he said. “But now I want the opportunity to help our community on a much larger scale.”
Jones explained why he left private practice to become an assistant district attorney.
“I can promise you I didn’t do it because I was going to make more money,” he said. “I did it because I wanted to serve people.”
He said there are three things he truly loves in life: Jesus Christ, his family and “seeking justice.”