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Our View: McCrory should set politics aside, appoint Lamb DA
The Daily Advance
Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gov. Pat McCrory will soon get a second chance to do something he already should have done: appoint Assistant District Attorney Nancy Lamb the 1st Prosecutorial District’s permanent district attorney, allowing her to complete the remaining year of the four-year term started by her former boss and longtime colleague, the late Frank Parrish.

McCrory had the chance to take this commonsense step over a week ago, in the immediate aftermath of Parrish’s death of heart-related failure. Instead, he only named Lamb interim district attorney — an appointment lasting only 60 days.

Lamb is clearly qualified for the permanent appointment. Besides working alongside Parrish for 29 years, she had been his chief assistant district attorney for the past two years, responsible for the administration of the office. So there can be only one possible explanation for McCrory’s reluctance to appoint her: partisan politics.

It seems some area Republicans, many of whom know little or nothing about the workings of the criminal justice system, have decided to oppose Lamb’s appointment on the sole basis that she’s not a registered Republican. They believe McCrory, the state’s first GOP governor in 20 years, has been presented a golden opportunity with Parrish’s death to appoint a fellow Republican to the vacant district attorney’s job, believing it will give that Republican a leg up in next year’s election, when Parrish’s term expires and any number of candidates could seek the office. They believe McCrory will be squandering that opportunity if he appoints Lamb, who like her late boss, is a registered Democrat.

While this kind of political maneuvering happens all the time — Democratic governors have appointed Democrats to fill vacancies created by the deaths of Republican officials — we think it would be wrong in this case for McCrory to heed area Republicans’ demand. Yes, the district attorney is a political officeholder subject to a partisan process — candidates are required to state a party affiliation and run in that party’s political primary. But district attorney is not a political officeholder in the same way county commissioners, state lawmakers or even governors are. Nearly every decision one of those officeholders makes is a political decision. No decision by a district attorney, on the other hand, should ever be based on politics. Facts, what the law says and what the interests of justice are, are the only legitimate bases for a district attorney’s decisions. The only “political” part of the job are the elections district attorneys are required to run in as candidates every four years.

That’s why McCrory’s appointment of someone other than Lamb would be so damaging. Given that no one else in the 1st District has her prosecutorial experience, appointing someone else would clearly be seen as political. The individual appointed would have no standing with either the district attorney’s staff, the legal community or the public as anything other than “the governor’s man” or the “governor’s woman,” beholden to interests other than the pursuit of justice. It doesn’t matter how hard the person appointed works to establish their own credibility, ultimately they will be viewed in this compromising way.

Appointing Lamb avoids this stigma because she’s already in charge of the office, pursuing the same priorities as the district attorney to whom the voters have entrusted the office, first in 1994 and most recently in 2010: Frank Parrish. If the voters disagree with those priorities, they can make a change in the office in the 2014 election when Parrish’s final term ends.

Appointing Lamb to fill the vacancy also makes practical sense. Think about it: Anyone besides Lamb appointed to the district attorney’s job will have, at most, only two months to begin the process of getting up to speed on the office’s operations. After then, they will have to start concentrating on the 2014 election and running for a four-year term.

Given that the filing period for the party primaries opens in January, and the primaries are held in May, someone new to the office almost certainly will be spending a lot of time away from it, trying to raise money and build support across the seven counties of the 1st Prosecutorial District. What will happen to the proper functioning of the district attorney’s office in the meantime? Who will be in charge? Who will be accountable?

Lamb, who is seeking the appointment to complete Parrish’s term, hasn’t said whether she’ll file for a four-year term next year. Regardless of what she ultimately decides, having her fill the seat through the end of next year would avoid the problem of appointing someone who would be juggling competing priorities — trying to learn the office while simultaneously running for election.

Those pushing for McCrory to appoint a Republican apparently are hoping a vote on recommendations to the governor by the 1st Judicial District Bar in Currituck on Monday will present McCrory with at least one viable GOP option for the district attorney vacancy. Given Lamb’s long experience in the District Attorney’s Office and work with the practicing attorneys who make up the bar, she’s not likely to lose Monday’s vote. However, since McCrory isn’t bound by the vote outcome, he could appoint an attorney whose name appeared on the ballot and only got one vote — just because that attorney is a Republican. For the sake of retaining a justice system free of the taint of politics, we hope that doesn’t happen. McCrory should do what’s right: He should appoint Lamb to complete the remainder of Frank Parrish’s term.