Hunter Murphy sworn in as Court of Appeals judge
As a community and a region, Waynesville and all of Western North Carolina had a reason to be proud on New Year’s Day as one of its own, Waynesville attorney Hunter Murphy, 35, donned his judicial robes for the first time.
Murphy was elected to one of 15 seats on North Carolina's Court of Appeals in the November election. It was his second attempt at claiming a seat on the state’s second highest level of courts and the first time in over a decade that anyone west of Asheville has served.
The Court of Appeals reviews cases that have been appealed at the district or Superior Court levels for errors in the application of the law. It does not consider the facts of the cases, only the law that applies to each. The court is second only to the Supreme Court at the state level.
Back in 2014, in Murphy’s previous attempt at the seat, more than a dozen candidates sought the office, and he received only 4 percent of the vote.
This time around, the field was much smaller, with only three candidates. The circumstances were also very different. Before the election, the North Carolina legislature made two key changes to the judicial races, which may have helped influence his win.
The first was requiring judicial candidates to include their party affiliations on the ballot. Murphy, a Republican, ran against Democrat Margaret Eagles, a Wake County District Court judge and the daughter of a former Court of Appeals judge. Donald Ray Buie ran a limited campaign as an unaffiliated candidate, but only garnered a small percentage of votes.
The second change to the judicial races was listing the candidates of the majority party first on the ballot.
The race was a close one, with Murphy pulling ahead by a 4.25 percent margin, leading some to speculate if ballot changes regarding party order of the names, since Republicans got first listing, may have influenced voters.
Murphy was candid about how he felt the changes affected this election.
“I think it had an effect for those people for whom that [party affiliation] is their top priority… As far as having filters, I’d rather have someone vote for or against me on a party label than the fact that they don’t like how my name sounds or looks on a ballot. If we can eliminate the randomness in judicial elections, that’s very important,” he said.
“Yes, in a perfect world, [judicial races] would be completely non-partisan, and we’d be able to let people know everything about us, but unfortunately, that’s not where we are,” he added.
Murphy agreed that he would rather be elected based on individual merit, but without public financing of judicial elections, and raising enough money to really educate voters on those merits is a tall order.
“Basically, it’s limited fundraising and everybody is spending their own money on these races. You can’t educate the public well enough,” he said.
Although Murphy comes to the court with no judicial experience, he said it is a job he has been preparing for his whole life, and he is ready to rise to the task.
“The role of the Court of Appeals is actually very different from the trial court. On the Court of Appeals, you’re basically reading, writing, making decisions over a period of months, and trial courts judges are dealing with what’s in front of them immediately. That’s why the Court of Appeals is there, to digest when there’s issues or mistakes made at the trial level, in the heat of the moment. So, it’s a much different process, but I think my trial experience here will be a great benefit there too, in knowing how cases are applied when they come down from the court of appeals. It’s a much different game than trial courts.”
He said his first priority is to make sure that he stays ahead of the workload.
The workload of the court of appeals is massive. In 2015, the 15 court justices, in panels of three, disposed of over 1,100 cases and over 4,000 motions.
“My goal is to stay ahead of the curve and make sure we do the right thing in every case,” said Murphy.
He said his experiences in the trial courts would help him be a better judge because he has been able to see cases from all sides.
“What I will take with me the most is knowing the impact these cases have on real people, attorney and judges. We’re not just sitting in a room in Raleigh making decisions, they have an impact on courtrooms here in Waynesville or Bryson City or wherever throughout the state. We want to make sure we have justice applied equally."
Becoming the westernmost-based justice on the Court is a point of pride and great significance for Murphy.
“I think it’s been a problem that we haven’t had anyone serving from this far west in a very long time. The last time was Judge Alan Thornburg in 2004, but that was the last time we’d had anyone from Asheville, or points west, serving. I think this is a great opportunity to really give us a voice out here — to make sure that people remember we’re out here. That doesn’t always happen, people think the state ends at Statesville or Hickory. Especially out here in the far west, I think it’s extremely important that we have judges from out here,” he said.
“This is the job I’ve always wanted. Politics just happens to be the way we have to get there. I’m very happy to serve the people of North Carolina for a very, very long time as a Court of Appeals judge,” he added.