Split NC Appeals Court affirms permanent ban on former Franklin County court clerk

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  • A split 2-1 N.C. Court of Appeals decision confirms that Patricia Chastian can not serve as elected Superior Court clerk in Franklin County.
  • The court's majority agreed that a trial judge had the power to disqualify Chastain from office under Aritcle VI of the state constitution.
  • Judge Jefferson Griffin described Chastain's conduct as "nothing less than corruption or malpractice."

The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Patricia Burnette Chastain cannot serve as the elected clerk of Superior Court in Franklin County. The split 2-1 decision upholds a trial judge’s April 2022 ruling against Chastain.

Chastain had argued that Superior Court Judge Thomas Lock made a mistake when applying rules set out in Article VI of the N.C. Constitution for “disqualification from office.”

“Upon review of the trial court’s application of the standard, together with Respondent’s conduct, we hold the trial court properly disqualified Respondent from office as her conduct in office amounted to nothing less than corruption or malpractice,” wrote Judge Jefferson Griffin for the 2-1 majority.

Chastain started work as Franklin County Superior Court clerk with a judicial appointment in May 2013. Voters elected her to the job in 2014 and 2018.

In December 2019, Chastain became involved in a dispute between two sets of neighbors. Chastain said she was going to mediate the dispute, according to a WRAL television report publicizing Chastain’s involvement. The incident prompted a TV investigative report.

Griffin’s opinion highlights other controversies involving Chastain. One focused on her trip to the Franklin County Detention Center to have a first-degree murder suspect fill out an “affidavit of indigency.” That trip prompted the county sheriff to ban Chastain from the detention center, sheriff’s office, and magistrate’s office.

Another incident involved Chastain’s angry, “often incoherent” phone call to Franklin County’s chief magistrate in June 2020. A state audit of Chastain’s office from July 2019 through January 2020 found “several deficiencies in internal control and instances of noncompliance that were considered reportable,” Griffin wrote.

In October 2020 Lock issued an order permanently removing Chastain from the clerk’s job. In February 2022, the state Court of Appeals reversed that decision and sent the case back to Lock. With new instructions from the Appeals Court, Lock once again issued an order against Chastain last year.

Chastain ran to regain her job in the 2022 election. A former Democrat, Chastain ran as a Republican against incumbent Democrat Shelley Dickerson. Dickerson won by 418 votes, with almost 51% of the total.

Griffin’s latest opinion referenced the Appeals Court’s earlier ruling in the Chastain dispute. “This Court set a framework for what constitutes willful misconduct, defining the standard to include only acts of willful misconduct which are egregious in nature,” he wrote. “We understand egregious acts to be those that are extremely or remarkably bad.”

“Our Court in Chastain I defined the corruption or malpractice standard to include acts of willful misconduct which are egregious in nature,” Griffin wrote. “Upon remand, the trial court relied on this definition to disqualify Respondent. Thus, we do the same, noting as our Supreme Court did … that in order to properly appraise Respondent’s conduct we need only ask one question: ‘What would be the quality of justice and the reputation of the courts, if every clerk, exercised the duties of her office in the manner Respondent did here?’”

Griffin emphasized Chastain’s six years of service as court clerk. “This time in office is significant,” he wrote. “Respondent knew, or should have known, the duties and ethical responsibilities of her office. … Conversely, Respondent continually acted outside the scope of her position as Clerk and engaged in misconduct.”

The misconduct undermined local judges and “brought the judicial system into disrepute,” Griffin wrote.

Judge Julee Flood joined Griffin’s opinion. Judge April Wood dissented.

“The outcome of this matter is of significant importance to North Carolina jurisprudence and future interpretation of the North Carolina Constitution,” Wood wrote. “Review of an order removing an elected judicial official is one of the ‘most serious undertaking[s]’ in which an appellate court may engage.”

“Our Supreme Court has instructed that Article VI ‘expressly limit[s] disqualifications to office for those who are elected by the people to those disqualifications set out in the Constitution,’” Wood added. “Article VI, Section 8 requires that ‘any person who has been adjudged guilty of corruption or malpractice in any office’ shall be disqualified from holding office.”

“Because this is an ultimate consequence, conduct must rise to the high constitutional standard of egregious and willful misconduct so as to constitute ‘corruption or malpractice’ before an elected official may be permanently disqualified from office,” Wood wrote. “Because I believe the trial court’s findings of fact do not support its conclusion that Ms. Chastain’s actions were so egregious as to warrant permanent disqualification from office, I respectfully dissent from the majority opinion.”