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Judge May Face Disciplinary Action In Estate Case

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Long before James Ethridge was elected in 2004 to sit on the North Carolina District Court in Johnston, Harnett and Lee Counties, he dreamed of being a judge.

Now that dream hangs in the balance, as the North Carolina State Bar judges how he handled an elderly woman's estate as a practicing attorney in 2001.

Attorney Tom Berkau of Smithfield was appointed by Legal Aid to help manage Rosalind Sweet's estate when she developed Alzheimer's. He noticed that more than $14,000 was missing from her bank account and the deed to her home had been signed over to Ethridge.

"I confronted Mr. Ethridge with the fact that the property had been conveyed to him and all this money had gone out of the account to him. I wanted to know what the situation was and why that happened," Berkau said.

Berkau said Ethridge admitted to taking the money and property, but said he had no intention of using it for his personal benefit.

"He indicated he was trying to help Mrs. Sweet save her property, that she was afraid people would take her property away from her and he was just trying to help her preserve that property from someone taking it from her," Berkau said.

Ultimately, Ethridge signed the deed back over to Sweet's estate and repaid the money. The final installment was paid last week.

This is an unusual case for the North Carolina State Bar, because there is only one other time that anyone can remember when a judge has been stripped of his license for something he did when he was an attorney.

The hearing will continue on Friday. Ethridge has not been criminally charged in this case. District Attorney Tom Lock said he will wait for the State Bar to act before he decides whether or not to open a criminal investigation.


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