Claims about judge ring hollow


Staff Writer

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Claims that a local judge might be in violation of the state judicial code are pure speculation at best or ugly partisan politics at worst, according to members of the local legal community.

District Court Judge Pell Cooper, on the bench in Nash County since 1999, has been listed as manager of a local corporation leasing land to a solar farm company since 2012.

In a recent article, The Carolina Journal — a product of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank — called Cooper's role in the LLC an “apparent violation of judicial code.” The article, quoting from the N.C. Code of Judicial Conduct, which provides ethical guidelines for judges, states a judge “should not serve as an officer, director or manager of any business.”

The article — published by the Journal and emailed to newspapers across the state Tuesday — omitted the word “but” in front of the quoted sentence. Just prior to the sentence, Canon 5C(2) of the code states judges can manage their personal investments, including real estate.

Cooper told the Telegram on Friday that he owns the LLC, and there's nothing wrong with that.

“It is a real estate investment that is solely owned by me, and the land is leased to a solar company,” Cooper said. “Limited liability companies are common in real estate holdings, and this is in compliance with the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct.”

A check with the Judicial Standards Commission revealed no disciplinary action taken against Cooper. Such proceedings are made public if the state Supreme Court punishes a judge.

Lawyers in Cooper's district told the Telegram they didn't believe Cooper's real estate dealings are violations.

“It's up to the state to make that determination,” according to a sitting judge in Cooper's district who spoke on condition of anonymity. That judge said the Journal's “gotcha story” cherrypicked words out of the code without context and the whole thing smacks of a partisan political attack.

Judge Cooper is bother to Gov. Roy Cooper, a first-term Democrat.

The Cooper brothers created Will Clark Properties, a limited liability corporation, in 2012 to lease part of a 54-acre parcel of land they owned together in rural Nash County to Strata Solar, which set up a 5 megawatt sunlight-to-energy facility in rural Nash County in 2013.

“The Will Clark Properties LLC was named after my great-grandfather,” Judge Cooper said.

Gov. Cooper ended his relationship with the LLC in 2014. Judge Cooper is listed as the sole manager of the LLC on annual reports, according to the website of the N.C. Secretary of State.