District Court Judge April Smith (’08) is sworn in as part of historic Cumberland County District Court bench

When District Court Judge April Smith (’08) was sworn in to office Tuesday, Jan. 6 afternoon, Cumberland County crossed a historic threshold: For the first time, its District Court bench has a majority of ethnic and racial minorities.

Of the 10 judges: Four are white, one is Hispanic, one is part Korean and part African-American, and the remaining four are African-American.

Three of the new black judges, including Smith, were elected in November for the first time. Further, they were the first black nonincumbents to win contested elections to become District Court judges, said Stephen Stokes, one of the new winners.

The new composition is historic not only in that the threshold was crossed, but that it has gone largely unnoticed. It’s a sign of the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg community’s diversity and that voters are willing to look at the character of the candidates instead of race, said several jurists.

Even retired N.C. Associate Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, who was Cumberland County’s first black District Court judge (and only its second female District Court judge), didn’t know the bench had become majority-minority until told by a reporter on Tuesday at Smith’s investiture ceremony.

When Timmons-Goodson was appointed in 1984, less than two decades after the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it was still hard for racial minorities and women to get into such offices, she said.

Minorities “did not have the level of political power and influence that I think that we have today,” Timmons-Goodson said.

“It was difficult. And it’s still difficult,” she said. “You think about it: A lot of things have to line up just right in order for political appointments to come about. You have to have some experience and some understanding of elective politics, and have to know how to campaign, where to campaign. A lot has to come together for one to be successful in any political campaign.”

The diversity of the bench is reflective of the community. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 45.8 percent of residents describe themselves as non-Hispanic white, 10.7 percent as Hispanic (and could be white, black or mixed race as Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race), 2.6 percent as Asian and 37.4 percent as black.

Before this election, there were seven white District Court judges, three black judges (including black and Korean Toni King), and one Hispanic judge, Lou Olivera.

‘I don’t look at color’

Smith and fellow new judges Stokes and Cheri Siler-Mack said voters picked them because of their qualities.

“I just think it’s, to me, reflective of the passion that you have for what you do,” said Siler-Mack. “That’s why I don’t look at color – I know people see that – but that’s not what I saw. What I saw is people have an understanding of the passion that you say you have, and that believe you based on what you say.”

“I don’t know if the idea of it being more minorities on the bench … says anything necessarily about our community in terms of race,” said Smith. “I think what it says is that our citizens are becoming more informed, more knowledgeable about the people, they they want in office, that they want in the judiciary branch.”

The candidates had to appeal to all races to win, said Stokes.

“To win across all demographics, which I did, even the primary, clearly says that it wasn’t just minorities voting for me,” he said.

Cumberland political observers have noted the three for their highly organized and intense campaigns.

They also benefited from get-out-the-vote efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Democracy North Carolina and other groups, said Cumberland County NAACP President Jimmy Buxton.

“Cumberland really did great in the election this past November mainly because I think there was a lot of work done in Cumberland County to actually the minority vote out,” he said.

Race doesn’t indicate whether a judge is good, Buxton said. He has been impressed by the fairness of some white judges and received complaints about a minority judge, he said.

“As long as they’re fair and judge a person by the law, that’s the only thing we’re going to be worrying about,” Buxton said. “It makes no difference what color the judge is, as long as that judge is fair.”

Read the original article from Fayetville Observer.