Judge candidates offer their wisdom

Staff Report
Bill Southern, left, and Andy Cromer are running for a seat on the Superior Court bench. - Jeff Linville | The News
Tom Langan is a long-time assistant district attorney, and Gretchen Kirkman was newly appointed a judge by the governor in January. - Jeff Linville | The News

Six candidates for judgeships gave folks a preview of the upcoming races during a recent Republican Party candidate forum in Surry County.

Unlike the other races, the filing period hasn’t opened yet for District and Superior Court seats but the forum was an introduction to six people who have announced their intentions to file when possible.

For three seats in District Court Judge District 17-B, the candidates were Marion Boone, Spencer Key, Gretchen Kirkman and Tom Langan. For one seat in Superior Court Judge District 17-B, the candidates were Andy Cromer and Bill Southern.

• After introductions, the first question to the field was how long each of them had been members of the Republican Party and what is their favorite part of the platform.

Kirkman, who noted that the host (Temple Baptist Church) is where her two children were saved, said she switched parties last Memorial Day. She had first registered to vote as a Democrat because that is what her parents were. She said what she liked about the GOP platform are family morals, God, country, and being a conservative.

Langan said he has always been a Republican since he first registered to vote in 1991. He said he was one of the few Republicans in law back then. He said he is a believer in traditional moral values and limited government interference.

Cromer said he was the newest member of the party as he had only changed about five weeks. He said when he was first elected judge in 2002, all the races were nonpartisan. Now that parties are required, he said he looked at his beliefs and thought, “The Democratic Party left me.”

“I’m a constitutional conservative,” said Southern. “It’s not a passing fad for me, folks. I’ve lived it.” But, he added, everyone who comes into the courtroom gets a fair deal. He said he believes in the law, nothing more and nothing less. If he wanted to be a lawmaker, he’d run for the state Senate.

Key said he registered as a Democrat, but was told more than once in high school and college that he was a conservative, not a liberal. He officially switched parties last year. As for the GOP platform, he said the party is strong in the Constitution and family values, which he likes. Of course, he noted, judges have to be nonpartisan. The rule of law is most important.

Boone said she has long been known as the resident square at the courthouse, but despite her conservative dress, lifestyle and philosophies, she has only been registered as a Republican for two years. She likes the GOP’s emphasis on God. There is an old saying about power corrupts, she said, but knowing that here is one above her keeps her accountable.

• The Constitution and the Bill of Rights protects the people. What is your favorite section of the Bill of Rights.

The 2nd Amendment, said Langan, referring to the right to bear arms. It is the rule by which all other rights are secured. He said he is a proud gun owner, hunter and member of the NRA.

Kirkman agreed, saying she and her husband had been the victims of crime before. “We have a gun in our home,” she said. “I’m not a hunter … but we should have the ability to protect ourselves.”

When it comes to concealed-carry permits, she said she looks to the sheriff’s office for background checks before ruling.

Key said the 4th Amendment gives people the right to be secure in the home, protected from unwarranted searches and seizures. The 5th gives people the right not to incriminate themselves, and the 6th is protection from cruel and unusual punishment. These are the three that come up most often in the courtroom, although he considers freedom of religion and speech important personally.

Boone picked the 1st Amendment. “We are living in an increasing era where everyone wants to say ‘freedom of speech’ as long as you say what I want you to say.” Otherwise, people don’t want you to have that freedom.

Southern said the 10th Amendment gives states rights that can protect the people from an overreaching federal government.

Cromer agreed with Southern that it is critical to have limits on the federal government. But he also believes strongly in the 1st Amendment for freedom of speech and religion. It allows people to be free to think what they wish and say what they know.

• In times of disaster, such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the YouTube office shooting, the police have responded in that instant in a way that some have felt violated their individual rights such as stopping people for questioning. Were the police actions lawful or not?

There are times when the safety of our families and communities have to be weighed against individual rights from unlawful search and seizure, said Cromer. A person can enter a place, kill someone and then try to ditch the weapon elsewhere. The need to catch the criminal and protect the public from further harm has to be weighed against rights, but only in this type of emergency situation — some common sense has to be applied.

Southern spoke of holding elected officials accountable for the decisions they make. He said it is critical that we have accountability and that issues have their day in court.

Key said, “Every day in criminal court we balance those rights.” Things such as government searches and seizures. “It is a balancing act. We have to look at the purpose of the government infringing on that right” exigent circumstances. He said he can’t speak as to the exact details of the examples given, but these issues do come up in the courthouse.

Was it legal, asked Boone. Yes. “It’s not an absolute right that the police can’t ask you questions.” It’s unreasonable questioning that’s prohibited. She can’t see how anyone could think it is unreasonable when they are acting for the protection of the public. Individuals don’t have absolute rights.

Kirkman said the police should always have a search warrant unless there is an emergency or exigent circumstances. In Boston, the police did have a right to frisk people fleeing the scene. “In this county we see it most with DWI.” The cops need to draw blood to test alcohol level without a warrant before the level naturally falls over a few hours. In regards to the Boston Marathon bombing, it was justified under case law and the Constitution. “We must let the police do their work.”

Langan said, “I believe those were justified instances. One a terrorist attack and one a mass shooting.” What the courts have to be careful about is the slippery slope, he said. That the exigency is sufficient, but clearly here in these circumstances it warranted it. These officers had to make very important decisions and had to do it in a millisecond in the field.

• Closing statements

Boone said she has practiced law for 30 years, covering all the different areas of law. She is a resident of Mount Airy, and all 31 years of legal service have come in Surry County.

She said it’s been such an honor and she wants to continue to serve. She believes that people are supposed to produce something in their time on this earth, not just consume, and this is what she can offer.

Cromer said he has appreciated the chance to serve — even briefly on the N.C. House of Representatives back in the 1990s. He said he probably is the only person on the panel who has had to sentence someone to death. “It’s not a moment anyone would want, but when you are the judge, you must follow the law.”

On any given day, half the people in the courtroom love him and half hate him, Cromer said, but they appreciate that he gives them the time to tell their story and treats them all the same way.

Southern said he looks forward to continue to work for the people. He also wishes to continue work on issues like the opioid task force and courthouse security.

Kirkman said if asked, “What kind of job are you doing as a judge? I’m doing an amazing job as a judge.” If voters don’t keep her, she said they will have gotten rid of someone who is protecting the public and children.

“My responsibility in each case is to apply the law; in regard to children, it is to protect children. … Come to the courthouse. I am always there, I listen to the kids, come watch me in action.”

Langan said he was active in Republican Party activities way back at Duke University, which was very liberal. He became an assistant district attorney and is proud of his 18-year history of fighting crime and standing up in court for the victims.

“I believe in the rule of law,” said Langan. There is a lot of diversity in the nation, but what keeps us together is the law.

“I love being a district court judge,” said Key. It was hard learning this job, and he still prays every day for guidance. It isn’t always fun, and tough cases can stick with you, but he loves when he is able to help people — like restitution for victims or child support for single parents.

Bill Southern, left, and Andy Cromer are running for a seat on the Superior Court bench.
https://www.thestokesnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_IMGP0675_filtered.jpgBill Southern, left, and Andy Cromer are running for a seat on the Superior Court bench. Jeff Linville | The News

Tom Langan is a long-time assistant district attorney, and Gretchen Kirkman was newly appointed a judge by the governor in January.
https://www.thestokesnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_IMGP0677_filtered.jpgTom Langan is a long-time assistant district attorney, and Gretchen Kirkman was newly appointed a judge by the governor in January. Jeff Linville | The News

Staff Report

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.