News: CJ Exclusives

With Stephens’ retirement, Martin will choose Wake County’s senior judge

Chief justice will appoint successor to Donald Stephens, who was initially appointed by Jim Hunt

Retiring Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens (CJ file photo)
Retiring Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens (CJ file photo)

RALEIGHThe Wake County Superior Court has a job opening.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens announced he will retire Nov. 1 from the 10th Judicial District. Stephens, who is 72, has served as resident judge since 2001.

Gov. Jim Hunt in December 1984 appointed Stephens to the court, and he was re-elected most recently in 2012. His term would have expired in 2020, but North Carolina law requires judges who reach 72 years of age to retire.  

Appointing a new senior resident falls to N.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin. It’s a critical choice with political implications.

Superior Court judges oversee constitutional challenges to statutes and state redistricting challenges. And by state law, “any challenge to the facial constitutionality of a legislative act is to be heard in Wake County by a three-judge panel of Superior Court judges.”

When such a case is filed or transferred, the chief justice chooses that three-judge panel — although the judges can reside anywhere in the state.

Martin gets to choose the senior judge due to a special provision in state law. In every other North Carolina county and judicial district, the resident  judge with the most continuous service on the bench automatically would get senior status. But Wake County is different.

As Michael Crowell of the UNC School of Government explained in a 2015 article,

There is one exception to the senior resident being chosen based on seniority. The chief justice chooses the senior resident for a judicial district which consists of a single county, has a set of districts within the district, and is a county “specified in law as the sole proper venue for certain actions.” Superior Court District 10, Wake County, is the only district which meets that definition. For that district, the chief justice chooses the senior resident who serves at the pleasure of the chief.

In redistricting challenges, the senior resident judge is supposed to preside over the three-judge panel, unless he is a former member of the General Assembly or otherwise unable to do so. In either instance, the chief justice will pick another resident Superior Court judge to head the panel. Stephens has not presided over any redistricting challenges.

Martin will choose among five candidates. Three are Democrats, one is Republican, and one is unaffiliated. Let the judging begin.

Judge Paul Ridgeway, 10A

Ridgeway, a Democrat, was elected to the bench in 2006. He was re-elected in 2014, and his current term will last until 2022. Ridgeway has presided over the Dickson v. Rucho redistricting lawsuit, which is now before the N.C. Supreme Court. He worked for the firm of Everett, Gaskins, Hancock & Stevens for 20 years before his election.

Judge Vinston Rozier, District 10B

Rozier, a Democrat, served in the 10th Judicial District from 2006 until 2010, and again from 2011 until 2017. He was appointed by former Gov. Mike Easley in February 2006 and elected to his office in November of that year. Rozier began his legal career in 2001 as an assistant district attorney in Wake County.

Judge Rebecca Waters Holt, 10C

Holt, an unaffiliated voter, was elected in 2016. She served 27 years as assistant district attorney in Wake County before her election to the bench.

Judge George Bryan Collins, District 10E

Collins, a Democrat, was elected in November 2012. His current term ends in 2020. Collins began his career as a private attorney in 1985. In 2005, he became a public defender for Wake County.

Judge Graham Shirley, District 10F

Shirley, a Republican, was appointed in 2015 by Gov. Pat McCrory, then was elected to the bench in November 2016. The judge worked in private practice from 1993 to 2015.