When former Summerfield Town Councilmember Todd Rotruck got word that Guilford County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge John Craig had changed his mind and was now denying Rotruck’s appeal to regain his former Town Council seat, Rotruck did something that was probably ill-advised: He sat down at his computer and, without consulting his attorney, shot off an angry email to Craig and told the Superior Court judge exactly what he thought of the judge’s decision.
Rotruck said this week that he was extremely disappointed with the judges change of tune, considered it “unprofessional” and added that he is “highly likely” to appeal Craig’s decision.
Craig stated that he wasn’t sure how Rotruck got his private AOL email address and also said he thought it best not to make the letter public since he was concerned that Rotruck’s “words would merely inflame a situation” in Summerfield.
Craig was willing to share the communication he sent to the attorneys, including Rotruck’s attorney Marsh Prause, after he received Rotruck’s email. This is how the judge responded in its entirety:
“Counsel: I received this communication (see below) from Mr. Rotruck this morning. Mr. Prause, I am sure you will explain to your client that it was highly improper to send this email to me; I am definitely not happy about receiving it. While I regret that Mr. Rotruck has copped an attitude with me, I want you to explain to him that while it is exceedingly rare for me to change my mind, it is nevertheless entirely within my purview and discretion. His vituperative screed has made him a less sympathetic character in this drama.
“When I practiced law, the senior partner in my firm always told me that when I was tempted to fire off an angry letter to someone, I should get all the venom out on paper, then set it aside till the next day. Then his advice was to either throw it away or tone it way down so it didn’t have any offensive words in it. It was very good advice.”
Though Craig did not care to share the email from Rotruck, the Rhino Times did obtain a copy from Guilford County through a public records request.
Rotruck wrote: “Needless to say I am not pleased with your flip flop of my appeal. Is this common course for a judge? I thought, finally, a judge who recognized all the lies, misinformation, and deceit that was propelled by an attorney like [Marshall] Hurley, leading attorney for the republican party in Guilford County, who used false and undocumented evidence against me.”
Rotruck also pointed out that Hurley had been paid $5,000 by an anonymous party to represent Summerfield resident Janelle Robinson, the women who filed the challenge against Rotruck’s residency. Rotruck asked, “Does this not sound suspicious to you?”
He wrote that it was evidence of people with political motives working against him. He said he was advised by elections officials that he really didn’t need an attorney at the Board of Elections hearing in April and was shocked when he entered the room and discovered he was going up against an attorney with 30 years of experience. He said he wasn’t given notice that his challenger had an attorney and he was “totally blindsided by it.”
Among other things, Rotruck also wrote, “The BOE [Board of Elections] did a pathetic job in doing their duty against me. You saw that initially and now went 180 degrees around. I really don’t get your reasoning. I really think our democratic society no longer functions properly and now it is not only because of Trump.”
In mid April, the Guilford County Board of Elections ruled that Rotruck lived in Greensboro rather than Summerfield. That decision caused the Town of Summerfield, on the advice of Town Attorney Bill Hill, to remove Rotruck from the six-member council.
On Monday, August 6, Craig heard Rotruck’s appeal of that Elections Board decision in the Guilford County Courthouse in downtown Greensboro. At that time, Craig listened to arguments from Rotruck’s attorney, Prause with the Winston-Salem firm of Allman Spry Davis Leggett & Crumpler, as well as from two attorneys who spoke in defense of the Board of Elections’ decision. Those were Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne, representing the Board of Elections, and Hurley, a Greensboro attorney representing Robinson.
After about three hours of argument on August 6, Craig told the parties that he’d heard enough and informed them that a decision would be coming soon.
In his first email to the attorneys in mid-August, Craig wrote that he was sending the case back to the Guilford County Board of Elections with instructions for that board to consider certain questions regarding the case; however, on Wednesday, August 29, Craig had a new decision. He stated that Rotruck’s appeal would be denied and the case would not go back to the county Elections Board after all.
That caused a very displeased Rotruck to fire off his angry email to the judge.
When Rotruck was asked about the email, he said he did in fact send one to Craig, and said that, when Prause discovered he had done so, the attorney informed him that that wasn’t a move he would have advised.
One thing to consider is that, even though the judge had offered the new decision in an email, he hadn’t formalized that new decision into an official order at the time Rotruck emailed the judge.
Rotruck, who’s been fighting hard to regain his seat on the Summerfield Town Council, said this week that he was appalled by the reversal and that’s why he shared his thoughts with the chief judge.
“I called him out on his flip flop,” he said. “I was just really, really frustrated.”
“What a slap in the face,” Rotruck added. “I win the appeal and then, two weeks later, the judge changes his mind. It’s not really professional.”
Rotruck expressed his disappointment over the decision. He said that at the hearing, his attorney spoke first and then the opposition made several points that his attorney had no chance to rebut. Rotruck said it wasn’t fair since, soon after 5 p.m., Craig said he’d heard enough and he ended the proceedings.
Rotruck also protested that some of the claims Hurley made in court – for instance, one related to power bills at the Summerfield residence – were inaccurate, but Rotruck said Prause did not have the opportunity to address those false claims because Craig cut the debate short.
“There was no chance for rebuttal,” Rotruck said.
He added that there were a lot of questions over the process that led to the judge’s reversal.
“Why did he change it?” Rotruck asked this week.
Rotruck does have a theory regarding the reluctance of Craig and other judges to decide against the Board of Elections.
“Nobody want’s to come down on the Board of Elections and undermine voter confidence – but they should be undermined,” Rotruck said, adding that the board had clearly decided wrongly in April.
He said he was never really able to make his case to the Board of Elections before that board determined that he didn’t live in Summerfield. According to Rotruck, he didn’t get a chance to contest some documents that were presented at the very end of the hearing and he was also not able to question appropriately one witness.
He said he’d never gotten a fair hearing in any of the venues so far and that’s why he’s very likely to appeal the case to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Last week, Craig wrote in his latest email that found against Rotruck’s appeal: “I have carefully read and thoroughly gone through the exhibits. While it is unusual for me to do so, I am reversing my previous instructions for a remand. I believe that the challenger met her burden of providing affirmative proof to the BOE, and the testimony from the witnesses at the hearing supports the board’s conclusion that Mr. Rotruck was not a resident of Summerfield when he voted in the most recent election.”
Rotruck’s family has been living in a Greensboro residence on Lewiston Road while Rotruck says he is now and was before living in Summerfield, renovating a house on Strawberry Road that he and his wife own and that the family will soon be in.
Craig wrote that Rotruck “never showed sufficient objective proof that he meant to permanently leave” the Greensboro residence and live at the Summerfield residence.
He added that “the evidence tends to show that he never convincingly severed his residency at the Lewiston Road property. Without sufficient evidence of an abandonment of the first residence, the board properly found that his alleged assertion of a ‘temporary’ departure from Strawberry Road, and his avowed intention to return there permanently after construction was completed, was insufficiently proven.”
Payne said this week that, while it’s true Craig is no longer calling for the case to go back to the Board of Elections, it’s also true that Craig’s original email never suggested that Rotruck had “won,” or that the appeal would be granted in the end.
Payne said Craig’s initial email – the one that bolstered Rotruck’s hopes – did not address a number of key issues and wasn’t some sort of all encompassing decision. The latest email from the judge, Payne said, did fill in most of the gaps.
Payne said of Craig’s new decision, “I don’t think this is the 180-degree turnaround Mr. Rotruck says it is.”
Payne also said the first email merely asked the Elections Board to answer some questions related to Rotruck’s place of domicile during a specific period of time.
“That’s all the first email was – that doesn’t tell you if he is going to uphold or reverse the decision,” Payne said.