In the first case to make it through the revised, secret N.C. Judicial Standards Commission process, the N.C. Supreme Court Friday upheld a public reprimand for Halifax Chief District Court Judge Brenda Branch.
The court found that Branch entered a divorce decree against an active duty soldier who was stationed in South Korea. The soldier had written to the court and asked for a continuance until his overseas tour would be up, in accord with the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003. Branch continued the case while investigating whether or not the soldier provided sufficient information to warrant a stay. After concluding he had not, she entered a default judgment against him without appointing an attorney. The SCRA prohibits courts from entering default judgments against active-duty soldiers, unless the court first appoints an attorney to represent the soldier’s interests.
Branch’s case is the first to work its way through the new N.C. Judicial Standards Commission process since the General Assembly made its proceedings secret in 2013. Prior to August 2013, Judicial Standards Commission complaints and hearings were public records. Without explanation during the 2013 session, the General Assembly re-wrote the rules for the commissions proceedings and made hearings, complaints and answers exempt from the public records law unless the N.C. Supreme Court decides to endorse a commission recommendation for punishment.
Branch first took the bench in Halifax County after being appointed by Gov. Mike Easley in 2007.
It’s the first rebuke of a lower court judge by the Supreme Court since 2012.