Cumberland County is currently without a Public Defender. For reasons known only to him, Chief Resident Superior Court Judge, Jim Ammons has failed to exercise his right under North Carolina law to appoint a person to fill the position.
When we look back at how we got here, we’re faced with an intriguing story of courthouse power and politics:
Judge Ammons appointed Bernie Condlin to the Public Defender position in January of 2014. The length of Condlin’s term of office was four years.
In 2017, lawyers in Cumberland County gathered at the courthouse, took nominations, and voted on their recommendations for the upcoming term. David Smith, an assistant Public Defender, beat Condlin by a razor-thin margin, but the Cumberland County Bar’s decision was not binding on Ammons. He had the right under North Carolina law to choose to appoint either of the top two vote-getters.
Ammons failed to appoint Smith or Condlin to the position. Instead, he left Condlin in place throughout 2018 in “holdover” status. Smith continued his career as an assistant, working under Condlin.
To add to the confusion, the law governing appointments was changed in June of 2018, giving the Administrative Officer of the Courts (of North Carolina) the power to nominate a person to be considered for the position. Here’s the session law. The underlined portions were added and the crossed out portions were deleted from the books:
So it would seem that once the law went into effect in June, the Administrative Officer needed to “submit a name,” and then Ammons needed to choose from the “list” of:
- Smith or Condlin; or
- The AOC submission.
Neither happened, and the issue dragged into 2019.
Condlin Resigns in February, New Names “Floated”
Condlin, apparently fed up with being in professional limbo as a “holdover,” resigned in February, saying he would be going back into private practice:
“I don’t know if I’m out of job in a day, a month, or a year,” Condlin said.
For the past several weeks, Cumberland County has been without a public defender. The rumor mill has started, as it tends to do at the courthouse, and other names have been floated for the position, including Gerald Beaver and former District Court Judge Tal Baggett.
The problem is that a “new” person would have to be “submitted” by the Officer of the Courts to enable an Ammons appointment. That hasn’t happened. Instead, when questioned by the Fayetteville Observer, the Chief Officer said he was “unaware” until contacted by the paper that Condlin was in “holdover status.”
Failure to Act
Judge Ammons holds all the cards here, and he’s failed to play a hand. He had ample time to choose between Condlin and Smith prior to June 2018, but failed to do so. It makes no sense to guess his reasons, but it’s a safe assumption that he didn’t want either of them. In that case, a simple phone call to Raleigh, telling the Administrative Officer to submit another name (to his liking) could have been sufficient.
Instead, we’re left with a breakdown that is unacceptable under the plain language of the North Carolina Statutes. The law is clear that the Chief Resident “shall” make the appointment and that is “required.”
As it stands, 15 lawyers, six support staff and two investigators are without a boss, and another important office is void of a leader.