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Why Wake County Judge Abe Jones lost

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Six days after the election, Wake County Judge Abe Jones is ousted and upset.

"I've won elections before, and I've lost, but I've never had these dirty tactics used against me until now," Jones says. His opinion of the behind-closed-doors jockeying that led to his election challenge is as unvarnished. "It's behavior that's borderline unethical," Jones says.

Jones, a two-term incumbent, lost re-election to Wake County Superior Court by a 48–51 margin to challenger Bryan Collins. Jones had received bipartisan endorsements, including Wake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Paul Coble, a Republican, and Democrats state Sen. Dan Blue and former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker.

Collins, who runs the Wake County public defender's office, later revealed that Jones' colleague, Wake County Senior Resident Judge Donald Stephens, had personally suggested that he run.

Stephens has connections to both men: He approved Collins' appointment as county public defender nearly a decade ago and has served alongside Jones as a superior court judge for 17 years. Jones served two eight-year terms, winning in 1996 and 2004.

"Abe is a great guy, and he has a lot of qualities," Stephens says. "But a strong work ethic has never been one of them."

Collins confirms via email that he and Stephens first discussed the prospect of him challenging Jones, an African-American, last summer, following the last round of judicial redistricting. Previously, District 10 was largely African-American, Jones says. Now designated District 10-E, it retains a majority of Democratic voters, but with rural areas of Wake County, including parts of Garner, Zebulon and east Raleigh, it's also more racially diverse.

Collins, who is white, says Stephens alerted him to the redistricting. "[Stephens] told me that the districts had been redrawn in such a way that he thought I could get elected," writes Collins. "He showed me the map and the party registration of the district. The rest was up to me."

Collins raised more money than Jones—$32,807 compared to $11,635—according to campaign finance documents. Jones attributes the gap in part to Stephens' influence.

Stephens denies that he has been personally involved in any judicial race other than Collins'. He also denies that his motivations for encouraging Collins to run were personal. As senior resident judge, Stephens explains, he's "held responsible" for the administration of justice by the superior court. And it's in the administration where he found Jones' expertise lacking.

Jones' organizational skills took a beating in a survey conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association, an organization of practicing lawyers. It is unaffiliated with the State Bar, which is responsible for regulating the practice of law in North Carolina. It can discipline and disbar attorneys.

In the survey, members rank incumbent judges and challengers on a 1–5 scale, with categories ranging from legal ability to integrity. Published in 2011, the survey paints an unflattering portrait of Jones and his abilities as superior court judge.

Overall, Jones rated a 3.3, with especially low marks in the Administrative Skills. As a jurist, the total put him squarely in the average-to-good range. Meanwhile, Collins scored a near-excellent rating of 4.6. Collins capitalized on the results during the campaign, posting the results on his website. And Jones says he saw Collins' supporters handing printouts of the results to voters at polling places on Election Day.

"If Judge Jones had gotten extremely good reviews, if he had gotten good marks, if he had a reputation, then Bryan Collins wouldn't have run against him," Stephens says. "But he didn't, and that was why he was politically vulnerable."

Jones vehemently disputes the results, even if he doesn't believe they were the main reason he lost. The surveys were subjective and not "true evaluations" of his performance, he says, adding that the process by which they were compiled was "inaccurate, inadequate and corrupt."

Results of other judicial races suggest that the survey has limited influence. For example, Judge Erin Graber was appointed to the Wake County District Court this year by Gov. Bev Perdue. In the bar association's survey, Graber outpaced her opponent, Dan Nagle, with an overall score of 4.3; Nagle received a score of 3.1. (Indy Week endorsed Graber.)

Nonetheless, Nagle, a conservative, won with 54 percent of the vote.

"Obviously, because of the results, I don't think the survey had much impact on my race," Graber says. Still, she hopes the bar association will continue to conduct member surveys of incumbent judges and judicial candidates. "As a tool for informing the voters, it's better than nothing, which is what we had before," Graber says.

David Bohm, assistant executive director of the bar association, says the group intends to conduct a second round of judicial surveys for the 2014 elections. Meanwhile, Bohm says, the board will assess the feedback it received about the inaugural round of surveys. The 21-member committee meets in January, when the earliest changes could be made to the survey process.

Jones' term expires next month. He plans to work in private practice, although he ultimately wants to return to the bench. Jones is just 60; state law sets the mandatory retirement age for judges at 72.

"It depends on how much work I have to do to rehabilitate my reputation as a jurist," Jones says.

It remains to be seen whether Collins improves the superior court. "I've seen trial attorneys that made bad judges, and mighty fine judges who weren't very good trial attorneys," Stephens says. "It's really a crap shoot."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Don't cross the boss."

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