Lambeth appoints Champion as county’s first public defender

It’s official. District court judge Rick Champion has been selected to serve as Alamance County’s first public defender.

Tom Lambeth, the county’s senior resident superior court judge, issued a formal announcement on Monday that he had tapped Champion for this new post, which will oversee the criminal defenses of most indigent suspects who are brought up on charges in Alamance County.

Lambeth had been tasked with finding the county’s first public defender after North Carolina’s General Assembly authorized this position earlier this year as an alternative to the rotating roster of private attorneys who’ve traditionally defended people in this county who couldn’t afford their own lawyers.

In addition to the actual post of public defender, the General Assembly has also set money aside to provide this new state official with a 10 person staff consisting of six assistant public defenders and four other employees. The county, for its part, has made preparations to house this whole, 11-person contingent in a collection of law offices along South Maple Street that it has offered to purchase from local attorney Todd Allen Smith for $1.2 million.

A one-time prosecutor who has also served as served on so-called “court-assigned list” of private defense lawyers, Champion had been an early entrant into to the competition for public defender after the position’s approval as part of the state’s current annual budget. Although Champion has just over a year left in his current term as a district court judge, he openly proffered himself for role of public defender based on his 39 years of experience in various aspects of the legal profession.

Champion’s bid for the public defender’s position went on to receive a boost earlier this month when Alamance County’s bar association named him as one of its two nominees for Lambeth’s appointment. The district court judge ultimately received 43 votes from the 50 local attorneys who weighed in on this choice during a special meeting on November 2. Meanwhile, three others backed the group’s second nominee – legal aid lawyer Ali Nininger-Finch. A third contender, Jeff McMillion, wound up with two votes after the association’s president disqualified several ballots that had been cast for more than one candidate.

The association’s two nominees were ultimately passed on to Lambeth, who promised to begin vetting the candidates once he had received a third nominee from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. In the end, Lambeth acknowledged that Champion’s popularity among his fellow attorneys was a significant factor in his decision to offer him the public defender’s position.

“Judge Champion had the overwhelming support of the Alamance County Bar,” he recalled in his formal announcement on Monday. “Judge Lambeth has great confidence that Judge Champion will perform the duties of Chief Public Defender diligently, honorably, and with great skill and ability.”

Lambeth added that Champion’s four year term as public defender will officially start on December 1, 2023. By then, the Republican district court judge will have presumably vacated his seat on the bench, leaving a hole to be filled by North Carolina’s Democratic governor Roy Cooper for the year which remains in Champion’s four year term.

Under state law, the governor is encouraged to fill a vacancy on the district court bench from among a list of nominees that the local bar association will advance at a meeting similar to the one it conducted on November 2.

In the meantime, Champion’s would-be successors will also have an opportunity to seek a full four-year term in office when his judgeship appears on the ballot in next year’s general election. Also at stake in that year’s election will be three other district court judgeships – two of which are currently held by incumbent judges Katie Overby and Larry Brown. The third is a brand new position that was approved in the state’s current annual budget.

The filing period for all four judgeships is slated to begin on Monday, December 4 at 12:00 noon.

See earlier story on attorneys interested in receiving the Governor’s appointment for the remaining year of Champion’s district court judge term, as well as those lining up for a fifth judgeship, that will be on the ballot in 2024.