• Leo Phillips of Murphy (left) and Kristina Earwood of Haywood County were frequently at odds in their debate in Murphy on Oct. 4. Photo by BEN KATZ
    Leo Phillips of Murphy (left) and Kristina Earwood of Haywood County were frequently at odds in their debate in Murphy on Oct. 4. Photo by BEN KATZ

ELECTION 2018: Tensions flare between District Court candidates

    Murphy – Judge Kristina Earwood and challenger Leo Phillips have had several chances to debate around the region in recent weeks, and tensions boiled over between the two at the Cherokee County Courthouse on Thursday night.
    The first debate for a District Court seat in Cherokee County in recent memory had at least two tense moments, where Earwood did not pull punches on her opponent on who he has represented in his attorney practice.
    The initial barb came after Phillips mentioned that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians set up a family court on the Qualla Boundary set up a family court because of issues in district court, particularly citing a case of a death of a child in Swain County.
    “Mr. Phillips ought to be well aware of the deficiencies there, because he represented the woman who killed that child,” Earwood said in a rebuttal. “I’ve spent the last eight years protecting and promoting families.”
    The next came in Earwood’s closing statement, which wrapped up the debate.
    “I’ve spent the last 15 years working with families in North Carolina. I’ve spent the last eight doing a whole lot of good work for the juveniles and families of western North Carolina,” Earwood said. “Mr. Phillips has mostly represented sex offenders or people accused of sex offenses, 82 in the last 10 years.”
    Earwood is seeking a third term on the bench, citing in her opening statement that 75 percent of what the district court judges do relates to children and families.
    “That is something I have a passion about. I am invested in our community,” Earwood said. “Not just because I have children, but it is important what we do as a judicial system to promote children and families in Western North Carolina.”
    Phillips – a Cherokee County resident – has been a longtime DSS attorney in Robbinsville and Franklin, along with work in criminal, domestic work and family law. He is a member of the Tri-County Community College Board of Trustees and was a delegate at the Republican Convention for President Donald Trump.
    Despite his claim as a proud Republican, Phillips said that has no impact on his plans if he is elected to the bench.
    “Politics has no place in the courtroom,” Phillips said. “I fully disagree with the legislature. There was no reason for these positions to be partisan. … When you come into my courtroom, if I am blessed to serve as your district court judge, I will not see your wealth, your economic status, your color, or your political persuasion. That means nothing to me.”
    Earwood agreed that politics have no place in the courtroom.
    “We don’t make law, we follow the law,” she said, adding later in the debate that “The first time you elect a politician in a judicial spot, you better run and hide your wallet and head for the house.”
    Both candidates touted the importance of working in the best interests of children.
    “When you are taking children away from a family, there better be a reason for such,” Phillips said, stressing the importance of keeping children in a stable home.
    Earwood said taking parental rights is a last resort, with the goal to reunify families unless that is impossible.
    Phillips brought up a problem that many in the community have complained about when it comes to courts in the region.
    “Last week we had more than 400 margins on our Superior Court calendar and that is a serious problem,” Phillips said. “The biggest problem we have is continuances. There should only be three continuances – one for the plaintiff, one for the defense and one if somebody died. Other than that the matter should be allowed to go forth.”
    Earwood said the growing population of the western counties along with having just six judges creates that problem. “We don’t have any more people to deal with the growing problems that we have, but we are still expected to deal with them,” Earwood said. “Cases are not continued in our district unreasonably. … But you can’t try 400 cases in one day. We need more services in our community as a whole.”
    Earwood said the opioid crisis is a major challenge for law enforcement and the court system. She stressed the importance of working with juvenile services.
    “If we don’t address it on the juvenile level, we will be dealing with it for the next 50 years,” Earwood said. “This is a not a problem we are going to jail our way out of.”
    The two clashed on whether judges could help out in other counties with their case loads, with Phillips insisting it can be done, while Earwood saying it was unrealistic.
    Regarding criminals getting back on the street too soon – an issue raised by many in the community – Earwood cited lack of a drug lab in western North Carolina until recently as an issue that has delayed indictments and cases moving forward.
    Phillips cited the practice by tribal courts of ensuring that defendants on bail are receiving substance abuse treatment as something that our district should mirror.