Court Officials

These elected or appointed officials play crucial roles in the processing of cases and the disposition of justice.

Clerks of Superior Court

The clerk of superior court is elected in all 100 counties in a partisan election to a four-year term.

Responsibilities

  • All clerical and record-keeping functions of the superior court and district court
  • Keeps those records according to rules established by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts
  • Collects money due to the State or on behalf of parties involved in cases before the courts
  • Judge of probate – handles the probate of wills (proceedings to determine if a paper writing is a valid will) and the administration of estates of the deceased, minors, and people who are incompetent
  • Hears other special proceedings such as adoptions, determinations of guardianship for incompetent adults, and partitions of land
  • Handles the administration of trusts
  • In criminal matters
    • Issues arrest and search warrants
    • Conducts initial appearance hearings for criminal defendants
    • Exercises the same powers as a magistrate when taking waivers of trial and pleas of guilty to minor littering, traffic, wildlife, boating, marine fisheries, alcoholic beverage, state park recreation, and worthless check offenses

Each clerk has a number of assistants and deputies, which varies by county depending on the volume of business.

District Attorneys

The state is divided into 44 prosecutorial districts for the election of district attorneys. A district attorney is elected to a four-year term in a partisan election by the voters of the district. District attorneys and assistant district attorneys must be lawyers.

Responsibilities

  • Represent the state in the prosecution of all criminal matters filed in district and superior courts
  • Prepare the criminal trial docket
  • Advise local law enforcement
  • Supervise a staff of assistant district attorneys (ADA), victim witness legal assistants (VWLA), investigators, and other administrative employees

Magistrates

A magistrate is an independent judicial officer, recognized by the North Carolina Constitution as an officer of the district court. Magistrates perform numerous duties in both civil and criminal proceedings. Magistrates are not elected, but are nominated for office by the clerk of superior court, appointed by the senior resident superior court judge, and supervised by the chief district court judge. A magistrate serves an initial term of two years, with subsequent terms of four years.

Responsibilities

  • Criminal proceedings including
    • Conduct initial appearances
    • Set conditions of release
    • Issue warrants
    • Other responsibilities
  • Civil proceedings including
    • Hear small claims cases
    • Enter orders for summary ejectment (evictions)
    • Determine involuntary commitments
    • Perform marriages (the only civil official in the state who can perform a marriage)
    • Other responsibilities

Learn more in the magistrate fact sheet.

Superior Court Judges

Superior court judges are elected by the voters in their district, must reside in the district in which they are elected, and serve terms of eight years.

Superior court judges hear both civil and criminal cases. See more about the types of cases heard in superior court. Every six months, superior court judges rotate among the districts within their divisions. The rotation system is provided for by the state constitution and designed to minimize conflicts of interest that might result from having a permanent judge in one district.

Additionally, there are special superior court judges who serve five-year terms upon appointment by the governor and confirmation by the General Assembly. Special superior court judges are not required to live in a particular district but otherwise have all of the authority of a resident superior court judge. Special and emergency judges may be assigned to particular judicial districts by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

In each district (except Wake County), the most senior judge in years of service is designated the senior resident superior court judge. This judge is responsible for various administrative duties, including appointing magistrates and some other court officials, and managing the scheduling of civil cases for trial.

According to the state constitution, all judges must be attorneys. However, they are prohibited from practicing law privately while they are judges. They also must be under the age of 72, the mandatory retirement age for judges. When a vacancy occurs in a regular judgeship (usually through death or retirement), or a new judgeship is created by the General Assembly, the governor fills the vacancy by appointing a judge to fill the position until the next general election or for the remainder of the former judge’s term in office.

All judges are governed by the Code of Judicial Conduct, as adopted by the Supreme Court. The Code requires a judge to perform the duties of the office impartially and diligently and sets out standards for meeting these duties, including when a judge should disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might be questioned.

District Court Judges

District court judges are elected by the voters in their district, must reside in the district in which they are elected, and serve terms of four years.

District court judges hear civil, criminal, and juvenile cases. See more about the types of cases heard in district court. Unlike the superior court, the district court districts are not grouped into larger judicial divisions and the judges do not rotate districts.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court appoints a chief district court judge in each district. Among other duties, the chief district court judge creates the schedule of district court sessions for the district, assigns district court judges to preside over those sessions and supervises the magistrates for each county in the district.

According to the state constitution, all judges must be attorneys. However, they are prohibited from practicing law privately while they are judges. They also must be under the age of 72, the mandatory retirement age for judges. When a vacancy occurs in a regular judgeship (usually through death or retirement), or a new judgeship is created by the General Assembly, the governor fills the vacancy by appointing a judge to fill the position until the next general election or for the remainder of the former judge’s term in office.

All judges are governed by the Code of Judicial Conduct, as adopted by the Supreme Court. The Code requires a judge to perform the duties of the office impartially and diligently and sets out standards for meeting these duties, including when a judge should disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might be questioned.

Public Defender

Public defenders work in some areas of the state. They are appointed by the senior resident superior court judge. Public defenders represent indigent defendants in criminal cases and juveniles in delinquency cases.

N.C. General Statutes