Judicial changes coming for Rutherford & McDowell Counties

Judge Laura Powell

JUDICIAL DISTRICT 29A — Judge Laura Powell will be hanging up her robe on Nov. 1 as she takes the helm as Public Defender (PD) for the district. The PD position was approved as part of the 2018-2-19 N.C. budget and covers both Rutherford and McDowell counties. The bill specified that the Office of Indigent Defense Services may use up to the sum of one million four hundred thousand dollars ($1,400,000) in funds appropriated to create new positions for the Public Defender District 29A. These positions shall include the public defender, up to eight assistant public defenders, and up to four support positions.

Our NC Rep. David Rogers of District 112 provided some background information:

Senate Bill 99 added Public defender offices in Craven, Pamlico, Rutherford and McDowell Counties. I was not on the committee that introduced the Public Defender Offices into the budget and so was not involved in the committee discussion.

The Bill that the Public Defender Office was a part of was an appropriations act which was intended to make state government more efficient and better serve the people of this state. As a part of that appropriation bill, this portion would certainly be intended to further those goals.

It is the responsibility of the County to provide office space for State offices such as this.

County Manager Steve Garrison has designated the now empty Building Inspections brick building behind the courthouse as office space for the new Public Defender offices. Building Inspections has moved to a recently purchased property on N. Toms Street.

The Public Defenders’ offices will be in the brick building at left. Photo Credit: Google

Garrison will be furnishing desks, chairs, etc. to meet the PD’s needs at their new office. Already fitted with internet connections, IT will be establishing a connection to the courthouse systems and plans to have them up and running on Dec. 1.

Offices in Marion, N.C. will be located in a currently empty building across the street.

Meanwhile, Powell is hiring staff. While she can not hire anyone right now that might be appearing before her in court, she has already hired David Norris from the District Attorney’s(DA) office. Norris did not have any cases under the DA, but will be carrying a case load in the defenders office as well as assisting in the managerial functions.

“I will be looking at lawyers locally,” said Powell when asked about future hires for her department.

Both she and Ted Bell, District Attorney, will be drawing from the same pool of potential hires. Bell has lost 4 experienced assistant district attorneys in the last year and will be looking for replacements. The allotment is 8 attorneys for both Bell and Powell to cover both Rutherford and McDowell counties.

Powell plans to resign her position as judge on Nov. 1, 2018. She had been running unopposed for re-election this year, but she will not be sworn in. Her replacement has not been named and the selection process depends on the outcome of the constitutional amendments on the ballot Nov. 6, 2018. That amendment changes the selection process as follows:

Constitutional amendment to change the process for filling judicial vacancies that occur between judicial elections from a process in which the Governor has sole appointment power to a process in which the people of the State nominate individuals to fill vacancies by way of a commission comprised of appointees made by the judicial, executive, and legislative branches charged with making recommendations to the legislature as to which nominees are deemed qualified; then the legislature will recommend at least two nominees to the Governor via legislative action not subject to gubernatorial veto; and the Governor will appoint judges from among these nominees.

Powell, with her previous years of practicing criminal law along with her twelve years on the bench, will be missed in District Court in her capacity as judge.