03/27/06 — Judge can put sign in his yard for clerk race

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Judge can put sign in his yard for clerk race

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on March 27, 2006 1:48 PM

Questions about the propriety of a Superior Court judge endorsing a candidate for Wayne County Clerk of Court might have raised some political eyebrows locally, but state judicial authorities say Jerry Braswell is within his rights.

Braswell, a Democrat who has held the Wayne County Superior Court judgeship since 2000, has erected signs touting clerk candidate Jo Ann Summerlin at his home and business.

Mrs. Summerlin is running in the Democratic primary against Pam Minshew. Randy Winders is running against Amy Carter Scott in the Republican primary. The winner will take the place of retiring Clerk Marshall Minchew, who is not related to Pam Minshew.

Judges normally stay above the political fray, and are even limited by state law in how they can campaign for themselves.

But officials with the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission said Braswell can openly support a candidate as long as he meets the criteria for being a candidate himself. That does not mean he has to be on the ballot this year.

Paul Ross, the executive secretary for the commission, said a judge can be considered a candidate if he or she meets at least one of four criteria: Filed for office, sent a letter to the commission declaring his or her candidacy, authorized the solicitation of public support for his or her candidacy or made a public statement of their intent to run for office at the next opportunity.

Braswell said he has let it be known publicly that he will be running for re-election in 2008, when his current term ends.

He cannot contribute financially to another candidate's campaign or speak publicly on his or her behalf, according to the commission's rules, but the law is silent on whether he can erect signs.

"I can't go to a Jo Ann rally and speak," Braswell said, "but I've let it be known that if they want to put signs on my property, that's fine."

In an effort to clarify the sometimes murky rules for judicial behavior during elections, the commission issued guidelines for judicial conduct in late February.

Braswell said the inference that his support would unfairly swing support to Mrs. Summerlin is questionable.

"My impact on the race is overestimated, I believe," he said.

Braswell noted that he and Chief District Court Judge Joe Setzer have issued memos to all county and state employees working at the courthouse to abstain from campaigning for anyone while they are on state property.

He said the clerk candidates are entitled to a fair, open and "spirited" contest.

The primary is May 2.

Voter registration for the primary ends April 7. Early one-stop voting for the primary starts April 13 and ends April 29. A second primary, if necessary, would be held May 30. The general election is Nov. 7.