Goldsboro, N.C. — As Judge Arnold O. Jones II asks Wayne County voters to give him another eight-year term overseeing trials on the Superior Court bench, he is facing a trial of his own in federal court.
Federal prosecutors charged Jones in November with trying to bribe a deputy sheriff, who is also part of an FBI task force, to illegally obtain copies of text messages between two phones. If he is found guilty of all three charges in the indictment, he could be sentenced to up to 37 years in prison.
Although documents on file suggest his trial could begin as soon as May, Jones' lawyer says he doesn't expect to go before a jury until late summer or early fall.
However, voters will find his name on the ballot in the March 15 primary, along with Jerry Braswell, a lawyer and former judge, and Will Bland, a former prosecutor who is also an accountant. All three are Democrats, although the race for a judicial seat is an nonpartisan election.
The primary will decide which two of the three candidates will go on to the general election in November, and voters will have to make that choice before they know the outcome of Jones' case.
"I think that the issue for the voters is, if this case had not happened, would you be satisfied with Arnold Jones? And I don't believe there is a question in the world he would have been overwhelmingly re-elected, probably without opposition, if the federal government had not come in," said Joseph Cheshire, who is representing Jones in the case.
Cheshire said that he has instructed his client not to speak with reporters, and Jones did not return a phone message seeking comment left with his office. However he told the Goldsboro News-Argus in January that he had learned from the incident.
"When situations occur in our life, we either deal with those appropriately or not," Jones told the newspaper. "I feel I am dealing with it appropriately. I believe in our system of justice. I feel good about things. If I didn't, I would not have filed for re-election."
Jones is on voluntary judicial leave, with pay, until his federal case is settled. In addition to being a sitting judge, he is also a former chairman of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which considers the claims of felons who claim to have been wrongfully convicted.
Who did something wrong?
Judicial elections are often difficult for voters to sift through in the best of times. Candidates are limited in what they can, or at least should, say about positions on issues and potential cases by the canons and ethics rules that govern their profession. Even statewide court races rarely capture the attention of voters like more boisterous presidential, gubernatorial or even state legislative contests.
This case adds an extra degree of uncertainty. Jones has been charged but has not been convicted.
"As a general legal matter, there's a big gap between being charged and being convicted," said Lisa Kern Griffin, a former federal prosecutor and a professor in Duke University's law school.
Public officials, Griffin said, typically don't have to give up their office unless there is a conviction since, like other criminal defendants, they are innocent until proven guilty. While public corruption cases involving judges are unusual, "it's certainly not unheard of," she said.
Griffin said she wouldn't presume to tell voters how to make a choice or weigh whether the case against Jones has merit. However, she did say that defending one's self against a federal prosecution is not a trivial matter.
"It's reasonable to question whether the distraction of defending against serious criminal charges is relevant to a candidate's qualifications," she said. "I think, in the case of a judge, it's also possible that some conflicts of interest, or the appearance of some conflicts of interest, would arise."
If Jones is convicted, he would be forced to give up his seat, even if re-elected. But Cheshire stresses that is a big 'if,' saying that he both expects to go to trial and raise questions about the handling of the case.
"The question for the jury is, 'Who did something wrong, Arnold Jones or the United States of America through its Justice Department," he said.
According to the indictment, sometime around Oct. 10, Jones sent a text message to a person identified as an "FBI officer." This is a local law enforcement official, a deputy sheriff according to Cheshire, who is part of an FBI task force. In the text message, Jones asked the officer "get access to text messages exchanged between 2 numbers and get copies of those messages."
Jones, the indictment said, first offered beer in exchange for the service. He later agreed to pay $100.
Asked why Jones wanted the messages, Cheshire said, "personal reasons."
Law enforcement is prohibiting from accessing texts unless they have probable cause to believe a crime has taken place. On Nov. 3, Jones delivered the money in exchange for what he believed to be a disk with the text messages in question.
Asked whether his client, a sitting judge, should have known that obtaining such messages outside of a criminal case was wrong, Cheshire said, "That's the interesting question of the case."
Other lawyers have suggested that the officer with whom Jones was dealing should have said, 'I can't do that. It's illegal,' rather than immediately launching a corruption sting.
A campaign issue
Cheshire has defended other elected officials against corruption charges, including former Gov. Mike Easley and former state Sen. R.C. Soles. Cheshire said that Jones' case has a lot of in common with Soles', who was accused of taking a bribe in exchange for helping to place a liquor store at a specific location. Soles, a Columbus County Democrat, was acquitted and re-elected the same year.
While the outcome of Jones' criminal case is months away, voters must decide whether they should give him a chance to keep his seat on March 15.
Braswell did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. He is a former judge who lost his seat to Jones in 2008 and has had his own problems as a result of public service.
In 2008, he was sued for refusing to reappoint a magistrate who missed time in court due to his military duties. That suit was settled in 2009. In 2004, he accepted censure from the state Supreme Court related to a conflict of interest when he declined to recuse himself from a case in which one of the litigants had sued him in an unrelated matter.
For his part, Bland said his campaign is based on his own qualifications as someone who has practiced as both a prosecutor and a private attorney. Initially, Bland said, he avoided talking about Jones' legal issues, but he did post about it on Facebook after getting questions from would-be constituents.
"I did that because people did not know what he status of the case was," he said. "I think these are issues that voters could consider relevant."
A spokesman for the North Carolina Bar Association declined to comment on the race or how voters should make their decisions.
However, the association does rate judges based on surveys of lawyers who know and work with them. In the ratings for this race, Jones earned higher overall marks than Bland, but Bland received higher marks for "Integrity and Impartiality," "Legal Ability" and "Professionalism." Braswell did not fare as well as either of the two other competitors.