Guilford County has hired a big gun – one of the area’s most recognized attorneys – to help defend the Guilford County Board of Elections in a lawsuit filed against that board by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ).
Guilford County Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan – an attorney with Turning Point Litigation (Mullins Duncan) – has been hired to represent Guilford County in the court battle in which the Guilford County Board of Elections is being sued for over $600,000 in attorneys’ fees and other costs related to a case that Guilford County lost regarding the state’s redistricting of the Greensboro City Council districts.
Guilford County officials know Duncan very well because each year the Guilford County Board of Commissioners works with Duncan and other school board members to determine the size of the county’s contribution to the school system budget – this year over $200 million. The schools always ask for more money from the county each year and in most years the amount given to the schools is a point of serious contention.
The Guilford County Board of Elections met with Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne in two closed sessions in June and July and the board evidently gave Payne the go-ahead to hire outside help on the case. Several elections officials said that was a wise move since this will be a highly specialized proceeding that falls outside the realm of the expertise of county attorneys such as Payne.
Payne represented Guilford County in the original lawsuit but didn’t defend the county except to say that he didn’t believe the SCSJ should only be suing the Board of Elections since they were not the party that initiated the redistricting. He also said he didn’t think Guilford County should have to pay the legal costs for the coalition.
Guilford County is paying Duncan $300 an hour for his services. Payne stated that is “a significantly discounted rate” from Duncan’s usual rate.
Duncan said this week, when asked about the arrangement and the case, that he wished to defer questions to Payne since Payne was the county’s lead attorney.
Duncan said he did agree that this case has an added layer of complexity given that the defense is representing an entity – the Guilford County Board of Elections – that cannot make decisions at the current time. That four-member board only has two members – not enough for a quorum – and there will be no new members until there is a new state board of elections. It’s anyone’s guess when that will happen.
Duncan, who was in Iowa last week handling a deposition, is a high-profile attorney who’s worked on numerous big name cases over the years – some that drew national attention. He was in the limelight when he defended former US senator and presidential candidate John Edwards in 2012 after Edwards was charged with four counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions as well as counts of conspiracy and making false statements. That high profile case brought the national media to Greensboro and, for weeks, West Market Street was lined with network television trucks. Edwards was found not guilty.
Duncan said he may have at one point in his career worked on behalf of Guilford County before but he said he’s not certain.
“I probably did something with the county decades ago,” Duncan said. “I don’t remember anything specifically, but at some point I may have.”
Born in Scotland, Duncan graduated cum laude from Davidson College in 1976 and, in 1979, from Vanderbilt University Law School, where he was executive editor of the Vanderbilt Law Review. Before starting his own law firm, Duncan was a partner at Smith Moore – a prominent firm where District Court Judge Catherine Eagles was also a partner before she became a judge.
Duncan, a past president of the North Carolina Bar Association, is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and he has been recognized as one of the “Top 100” lawyers by North Carolina Super Lawyers. He’s also been listed as one of the Best Lawyers in America in eight categories. In 2008, he won the J. Robert Elster Award for Professional Excellence – the highest honor given out by the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys.
Duncan has also received awards for his community leadership including the “Unsung Hero” award from the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation.
The county’s choice of Duncan to defend the county in this lawsuit is certainly an interesting one. Duncan, a high profile Democrat now working for a Republican-run county, has represented the City of Greensboro in the past, which was one of the parties suing the Guilford County Board of Elections in the initial redistricting case – decided by Judge Eagles. Also, given how slow the wheels of justice turn and the special circumstances of this case, Duncan might be representing Guilford County in this case while simultaneously making a large request for school system funding next year.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said this week that one good thing about having Duncan on the defense team is that it adds a bipartisan flavor to the defense by having a well known Democrat on board.
“I think it can decrease the political sparring with him being an advocate on our behalf,” Branson said. “At least they won’t say, ‘We’re up against a bunch of hard-ball conservatives.’”
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners includes five Republicans and four Democrats and, since 2012, the Republicans have been calling the shots in the county government.