Alamance County’s attorneys have decided to proffer a district court judge and a legal aid lawyer as their recommended contenders for the newly-approved post of public defender.
During a special meeting on Thursday, members of the Alamance County Bar Association chose judge Rick Champion and attorney Ali Nininger-Finch as their nominees for this post, which North Carolina’s General Assembly has agreed to create to provide legal representation for most of the county’s criminal suspects who are too poor to hire their own layers.
Nearly 60 of the association’s members took part in this nomination process, which is one of the state’s legally-mandated precursors to the public defender’s eventual appointment. Under state law, the local bar association was required to submit either two or three nominees to Tom Lambeth, who will make the final selection in his capacity as Alamance County’s senior resident superior court judge.
Lambeth will also receive one additional name from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), which will make its recommendation in consultation with N.C. Indigent Defense Services, the state-level agency which oversees public defenders.
Following the association’s nomination of Champion and Nininger-Finch, Lambeth addressed the group’s members about the procedures he’ll use to make his final selection for the county’s new public defender.
“It looks like I’ll have three nominees – two from the bar and one from the AOC,” he added. “I’m expecting to make my appointment probably before Thanksgiving.”
The county’s bar association ultimately chose Champion and Nininger-Finch as its nominees for Lambeth’s appointment over Graham-based attorney Jeff McMillion, who had also offered himself up as a potential candidate in advance of the special meeting on Thursday.
During that afternoon’s proceedings, the association’s members conducted a secret ballot to identify their top two picks for the public defender’s positions. But, first, the group held a show of hands to determine whether it would submit two or three names for Lambeth’s consideration – either of which are acceptable under state law.
Lambeth himself voted for the three-nominee option, along with a handful of other attorneys, most of whom sat at the same table as Nininger-Finch. Yet, a vast majority of the eligible members opted for the two-name alternative, guaranteeing that one of the three declared candidates would go home disappointed.
After the show of hands, the association’s officers distributed pre-printed ballots that featured the names of Champion, McMillion, and Nininger-Finch, along with a space for a fourth name should anyone want to write in a candidate not on the ballot.
In the end, the association’s officers received back 59 ballots from the eligible voters – a category which was restricted to members in good standing who reside within Alamance County. The association’s president Keisha Bluford conceded that two of the members had submitted ballots that indicated they had abstained from the vote. (Lambeth later admitted that he was one of the abstentions.) The association’s president added that another seven voters would have their choices rejected because they failed to follow the association’s clear instructions for completing the ballots.
“The bar’s rules say to circle one name,” Bluford went on to explain. “So, according to our regulations…any ballots marked for more than one candidate will not be counted.”
Bluford added that, of the 50 voters who made admissible choices, 43 had declared their support for Rick Champion to serve as the county’s first public defender. Three others selected Ali Nininger-Finch, two gravitated toward Jeff McMillion, and two wrote in the name of attorney Natalie Jones, who wasn’t among the prospective candidates who made their intentions known in writing before the association’s meeting.
Bluford proceeded to reveal that the final order of the contenders would’ve been a bit different if the seven disqualified ballots had been factored into the tally. She explained that McMillion’s name had been circled on five of those ineligible submissions, while Nininger-Finch had been marked on just three of them, and Champion was selected on all seven.
With the bar association’s two nominations in hand, Lambeth promised to pass them along to the administrative office, adding that, with any luck, he’ll be able to wriggle a third nominee out of the state-level agency within the next 48 hours.
The county’s senior resident superior court judge went on to inform the assembled attorneys that he eventually wants to sit down in person with each of the three nominees in order to get a better sense of their qualifications for the pubic defender’s position. He nevertheless added that he intends to make his selection as quickly as possible in light of several considerations – not the least of which is the rapidly approaching filing period for candidates in next year’s elections.
Among the local offices that will be up for grabs in 2024 is the district court judgeship which Champion currently holds. The would be public defender has previously indicated that he’d like to know whether or not he has Lambeth’s blessing to take on that post before the candidate registration period for district court judge, which begins on December 4. During Thursday’s meeting, Lambeth made it clear that he plans to make his decision within Champion’s timetable.
Lambeth added that, if all goes according to plan, the new public defender will not only be selected, but assembling a staff and attending to other administrative duties, much sooner than many folks have expected.
“It would be great if we see that somebody working by January 1 – and maybe even December 1,” he declared.