Trial date set in disputed Columbus Co. sheriff’s race

Trial date set in disputed Columbus Co. sheriff’s race

COLUMBUS COUNTY, NC (WECT) - A Wake County judge has set a Feb. 11 trial date in former Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher’s case against the recently elected sheriff.

Earlier this month, Hatcher filed a complaint for injunctive relief, essentially requesting a court remove Jody Greene from office and reinstate him to the role until the State Board of Elections can consider several pending protest appeals filed in connection to the sheriff’s race.

The crux of the controversy stems from the swearing-in of Greene, which was apparently done prematurely and in violation of state law. The law requires a certificate of election to be issued before someone assumes office. That did not happen in this case.

Judge Graham Shirley said that this case was not about who got the most votes, who was the best candidate, or what was fair, since the law isn’t always fair. He said this was about applying the facts of this case to the requirements of the law.

“Politics, political affiliations have absolutely no place in this courtroom, and no place in my decision-making,” Shirley told the courtroom. “Any decision made in this court is going to be made according to the law. I will let the chips fall where they may. If I did not it would be a violation of my oath of office. I would hope that the people who aspire to be the chief law-enforcement officer of this county will not only expect but demand that this court apply the law to the facts and only the law.”

Republican newcomer Greene narrowly defeated Hatcher, a Democrat, by 37 votes in the November general election. But there were several election protests filed, challenging whether Greene actually lives in Columbus County and questioning what happened to nearly 200 absentee ballots that disappeared. Greene was sworn-in as sheriff in early December, and has been serving in that role since, despite the pending protests.

On Friday, the judge said he did not have the statutory authority to issue a restraining order or other injunctive relief to remove anyone from office. But, he could help settle this matter through other means.

“The right to occupy the position of sheriff is a property right. So what we are here to determine is who has that right, who owns that right. Once that is determined whether it’s by a judge or a jury, the judge then can enter orders enforcing whatever decision is made by the finder of fact,” Judge Shirley explained. "The legislature specifically prohibits me from making a restraining order or interfering or enjoining such an officer... during the ongoing action.... This court does have the authority to try the issue of who the proper person is to hold the office of Sheriff and then based upon the finder of fact the court can make orders if that person is not in office to put that person in office.”

Shirley ruled the jury trial would be held in another county, potentially Pender County, saying reaching a unanimous verdict with Columbus County jurors would be next to impossible.

The judge also told attorneys who represented Greene that he would be required to put up a $25,000 bond within 10 days to respond to Hatcher’s complaint, or the court would enter a judgement by default in Hatcher’s favor. The amount was based on the pay and benefits Hatcher is losing while he arguably should have remained Sheriff pending the outcome of the election disputes.

While Hatcher and supporters for both candidates were in the courtroom today, Greene did not attend the proceedings. Two attorneys appeared on his behalf.

Copyright 2019 WECT. All rights reserved.