An elected judgeship may be the career-crowning ambition of many attorneys. But for Alamance County district court judge Rick Champion, a seat on the bench could be just a stepping stone to yet another position that, until recently, was nothing more than pipe dream for lawyers in this neck of the woods.
In an interview with The Alamance News, Champion acknowledged that he intends to seek the office of public defender – a post that will soon be available in Alamance County thanks to its inclusion in North Carolina’s current annual budget.
An experienced litigator whose 39-year career has included stints as both a prosecutor and a private defense lawyer, Champion admits that he originally shared his plans to pursue this position during a bimonthly meeting of local court system officials.
“I made the announcement last week that, after discussing it with my wife, I have decided to attempt to get nominated by the local bar,” he went on to recall in a conversation on Wednesday. “If I get the appointment, I will have to resign as a district court judge, which really pains me because I have really enjoyed my time as a judge. But the county has needed a public defender for a really long time,”
Frequently framed as a counterpart to the post of district attorney, the office of public defender is an appointed state-level role that, in certain judicial districts, oversees the criminal defense of anyone who opts for court-appointed counsel.
In the absence of a public defender, Alamance County has historically relied on a rotating roster of private attorneys to represent indigent defendants in this jurisdiction. In recent years, however, chinks have begun to appear in this Constitutional armament as fewer and fewer attorneys have agreed to place their names on this so-called “court-appointed” list.
In response to repeated pleas from local officials, North Carolina’s General Assembly has agreed to set some money aside to hire a public defender for Alamance County. In addition to the actual position of public defender, the General Assembly has also designated some funds to employ six other attorneys as well as a four-person support staff to serve under this new state-level official.
This gesture on the part of the state legislature remained little more than an intriguing possibility until about two weeks ago, when North Carolina’s governor Roy Cooper agreed to let the proposed spending plan take effect, ending a long-running stalemate between the Democratic executive and the Republican-led General Assembly.
Cooper’s decision has set off a scramble within the local court system over both the public defender’s position and a fifth district court judgeship that also appears in the budget. In the case of the new judgeship, the General Assembly has decided to let the seat remain empty until it is filled by area voters in the fall of 2024. In the meantime, the public defender’s selection will be the prerogative of Tom Lambeth, who serves as the county’s senior resident superior court judge.
Under state law, Lambeth is obligated to make this appointment from three nominees – two of which will be proffered by the local bar association; while the third will come from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts in consultation with Indigent Defense Services (IDS), a state-level agency that’s responsible for the criminal defense of people who can’t afford their own lawyers.
Two weeks ago, Lambeth told The Alamance News that his contacts at IDS had assured him that the time frame for the installation of a new public defender should be less than six months.
“Based on their latest experience,” the superior court judge added, “I’m hopeful that we can have the public defender’s office open and hearing cases in the late winter or early spring of next year.”
This fast-approaching deadline has put Alamance County’s top brass under the proverbial gun to find suitable accommodations for the public defender and his staff. Under state law, the county is required to provide office space for these new state employees, and its top-ranking administrators are currently toying with two leading options for this facility. One possibility is a county-owned building at the corner of Maple and Pine streets in Graham that housed the local elections office prior to its recent relocation to a repurposed bank building south of the interstate. The county’s other prospect is a suite of law offices that local attorney Todd Allen Smith owns at 106 South Maple Street. Last week, the county’s board of commissioners went behind closed doors to confer about their prospective purchase of this building along with an ample parking lot that Smith also owns along the same block.
For Champion, an even tighter time table governs his candidacy for the public defender’s appointment. The sitting district court judge pointed out that his current four-year term on the bench will expire in the fall of 2024, although he added that he’ll need to know something about the pubic defender’s position by December of this year – which will mark the filing period for candidates in next year’s election. Should Champion clinch the public defender’s position, he would be obligated to make an early withdrawal from his judgeship, setting off more jockeying among local attorneys, a new round of nominations from the bar association, and an eventual gubernatorial appointment to serve out the year or less that remains of his four-year term on the bench.
In the event that he nabs the appointment, Champion insists that the honor of serving as the county’s public defender will more than make up for any misgivings he has about leaving his vaunted position as a district court judge.
“If I get it,” he said, “I’ll be the first public defender to serve in Alamance County, which means I’ll be able to hire people and set policies for the new office.”