11/02/06 — Chief Justic Parker tries to keep her seat

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Chief Justic Parker tries to keep her seat

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 2, 2006 1:45 PM

North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker doesn't try to hide the fact that she is a Democrat, but she also doesn't place too much stock in liberal and conservative labels.

"I don't go around classifying myself one or the other," the 64-year-old Charlotte native said. "If other people want to classify me, that's their privilege. When I was appointed, one of the other members made a comment that I was probably the most conservative member of the court."

Her appointment came in February when she was tapped by Gov. Mike Easley. Having been on the Supreme Court since 1993, she was the court's senior member, and at the time, the only Democrat.

She is seeking re-election to an eight-year term.

Ms. Parker would not stake herself out on particular issues. That could compromise her when considering a case, she said. Judicial elections are non-partisan.

"I'm running on my record. I don't feel it's appropriate for us to take stances on issues that might come before the court," she said.

If a candidate takes a stand on an issue during a campaign, his or her ability to fairly consider a case in the future could be undermined -- whether because the judge feels the need to keep his or her word, or because he or she feels the need to go the opposite direction to prove there was no prior bias.

She also said that it is important for a litigant to be able to walk into a courtroom and not feel that the justices have already pre-determined the outcome of his case.

"My feeling is, if you're going to be able to perform the duties in a principled fashion, the way I feel it needs to be approached, and apply the rule of law, you need to be able to approach it without this campaign rhetoric influencing the decision, whether consciously or unconsciously," Ms. Parker said. "I think that the most crucial part of being a judge is being fair and impartial."

Ms. Parker, a former attorney who has served in the North Carolina judicial system since 1985, emphasized that she is not looking to radically change the state's highest court.

"I feel like I try to be impartial in all my decisions," she said. "I address the legal issue and try to write a principled decision that is substantiated by precedent.

"In a lot of my decisions I think you'd be hard put to find a lot of extra language. There's not a lot of dicta (extra commentary) in the opinions I write."

The role of the Supreme Court, she said, is to apply the statutes to the cases before them -- after the trial courts have determined the facts and the lower appellate courts have revised any errors of law.

"There are times the Supreme Court is called upon to interpret a statute that has not been interpreted before," she said.

But, she continued, when the court is called upon to do just that, whether because of conflicting laws or vagueness, it is not their responsibility to create a new law. The justices must follow precedent and at all times, she emphasized, the court is constrained by the laws written by the General Assembly.

"If the legislature comes to the conclusion that we have not interpreted the statute as they intended, they can amend the legislation," she said. "From my point of view I do not perceive that I'm going to start making any major changes in the decision-making process of the Supreme Court."

However, there are several areas of the state's judicial system in which Ms. Parker would like to see improvements.

"We simply have to get our courts into the 21st century in terms of technology," she said.

Among those changes would be the establishment of e-filing systems to cut down on paperwork, new case management software and N.C. Aware -- a statewide warrant database that is scheduled to debut as a pilot program in early 2007. That program, she explained, will finally allow law enforcement officials the ability to see if suspects have any outstanding warrants.

Ms. Parker also said there is a need for more personnel -- more deputy clerks of court and more assistant district attorneys -- as well as improved courthouse security.

In addition, she continued, there needs to be better way to move along civil cases in which people are representing themselves.

All of these things, Ms. Parker said, will help make the judicial system more effective and efficient -- and save taxpayer dollars.

"We have our work cut out for us, but the key to this is funding from the legislature, and I think I do have a good rapport with the legislature," she said. "One really practical thing about my experience is that you have to do the work of a justice, as well as the work of a chief justice and having learned to do the work of a justice, I have a little more time to work with the legislature."

And that experience, she said, is why she's better suited to the position than her opponent, Republican Rusty Duke.

"As the senior member of the Supreme Court, I understand the work of the court and also the needs of the court system. I have a good working relationship with all the constituent groups that come under the judicial branch of government," Ms. Parker said. "I pledge that I will continue to administer the law fairly and impartially to all those who come before the court and give the duties of chief justice my utmost ability, energy and integrity."