The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

April 4, 2014

DA candidate awaits Supreme Court ruling

Phillips’ contempt reversal under review

By Ritchie Starnes, News Editor

Thursday, April 3, 2014 — Jim Phillips, an Albemarle lawyer and candidate for Stanly County District Attorney, has more than an election on his mind in a contempt of court case that’s before the North Carolina Supreme Court.

He could also lose his license to practice law if the state’s highest court overturns an appeals court reversal of a judge’s ruling. A judge ruled Phillips circumvented the law while representing a client. Phillips was then found guilty of contempt.

At the request of the State Attorney General’s Office, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Phillips case. The state has until Monday to file its written arguments. Phillips has 30 days to respond. Oral arguments will precede a decision.

If the high court affirms the appeals court ruling, Phillips is home free. But if it agrees with Superior Court Judge Theodore S. Royster that Phillips violated “his ethical duties” as a lawyer, then his possible election as district attorney and his law license could be at stake.

“The actions of defendant have impeded the administration of justice and have brought the court system into disrepute,” Royster said among his findings.

There’s little likelihood the court will rule before the May primary election for the county’s new DA district — an election that will, for all practical purposes, determine who holds the office because only Phillips and attorney T. Lynn Clodfelter, both Republicans, are candidates. No Democrat is on the ballot, though the GOP winner could still be challenged by a write-in candidate at the general election.

Phillips said he believes the root of his legal drama is politically motivated after he openly campaigned against a liberal judge in Anson County during the last election.

“Several court officials including some judges were openly hostile with me for this,” Phillips said.

Phillips has campaigned as a candidate “committed to restoring dignity, honor and public confidence in our local legal system.”

Technically, Phillips could serve as district attorney even if the Supreme Court rules against him. There’s no law that says a candidate convicted of contempt is barred from the office.

But a high court contempt decision would go to the North Carolina Bar Association for disciplinary action. The Bar Association could then suspend or revoke Phillips’ law license. Or do nothing.

The North Carolina Constitution requires district attorneys to be licensed lawyers.

Royster found Phillips in contempt more than a year ago for misrepresentation in trying to retrieve the cell phone of a client even though the phone had been seized by authorities as evidence in a criminal case.

The judge censured him for his conduct and fined him $500.

But the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned the conviction last November, ruling the judge failed to apply the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a guilty finding.

To submit story ideas, contact Ritchie Starnes at (704) 982-2121 ext. 28.l