Newly-elected Judge William I. Belk took a howitzer to the gut on his first day of judges’ school, when he learned about Canon 5 C. (2) of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct. This Canon prohibits a judge from serving as an officer, director, or manager of any business.
Judge Belk, fresh off a hard-fought, and victorious, campaign for a district court seat in Charlotte, happened to serve on the board of directors of Sonic Automotive, Inc. He also happened to receive a director’s stipend of $143,000 per year as a token of Sonic’s appreciation for his sage advise as a director.
Admittedly, Judge Belk dropped the ball when ran for judge without knowing the job requirements. But once he learned the rules, he reacted as any sane person would react if ordered to forfeit a $143,000 annual windfall to be paid in perpetuity. He lobbied, cajoled, finagled, whined, cried, and even fibbed a little, in an effort to get the rule waived, changed, ignored, or burned in effigy – he very, very, very earnestly believing said rule to be ludicrous.
The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission and the North Carolina Supreme Court, in In Re: Inquiry Concerning A Judge, Nos. 09-013, 09-018 and 09-029 William I. Belk, Respondent, (In the Supreme Court of North Carolina, No. 464A09, filed April 15, 2010), agreed that Judge Belk’s refusal to resign from the board of directors, along with some of the antics generated by his frustration, required his removal from the bench. After all, rules are rules.
That the Supreme Court agreed with the Judicial Standards Commission’s recommendation that Judge Belk be removed from office was not surprising. That the Supreme Court rejected one of the Commission’s grounds for removal, specifically, Judge Belk’s confrontation with Chief District Court Judge Lisa C. Bell, was surprising.
The confrontation arose when Chief Judge Bell refused Judge Belk’s request to be relieved of his court assignment for a day to attend a Sonic board meeting. She refused. Judge Belk snapped.
Judge Belk went to Chief Judge Bell’s office and told her his service on the board was “none of her business.” When Chief Judge Bell asked him to leave, he shouted at her that she was “a media hound” and a “political hack”, that she had been “bought and paid for” by two named attorneys whom Judge Belk claimed orchestrated her appointment by the Chief Justice as chief district court judge so she could “screw him over,” and that she should be ashamed. While standing close to Chief Judge Bell in an intimidating manner, Judge Belk shouted at her “you leave me the hell alone.”
The Supreme Court, declining to comment on the substance of Judge Belk’s tirade, stated, “While a district court judge must respect the Chief District Court Judge’s duties and authority, the nature of the relationship between coworkers may at times produce episodes of contention, disagreement, and frustration. Despite the inappropriate nature of Respondent’s actions during his confrontation with Chief Judge Bell, discipline is not normally imposed for a single incident of improper behavior exhibited towards a coworker. … Accordingly, the Commission’s findings of fact do not support its conclusion that Respondent’s behavior towards Chief Judge Bell violated Canons 1, 2A, and 3A(3) or N.C.G.S. 7A-376.”
The Supreme Court displayed great wisdom in allowing a man who was as frustrated and exasperated as Judge Belk to blow off some steam. Given that Judge Belk had already resigned his judgeship by the time the Supreme Court’s decision came down, he must have taken considerable consolation in the Court’s decision on this issue.