Steven D. Cogburn, Buncombe County’s longtime Clerk of Superior Court, is retiring, just two months after being elected to another 4-year term.
“I have decided to retire. My arthritis is a significant reason,” Cogburn said in an email. “I am comfortable with the team at the office. They are great.”
The Clerk of Superior Court is a constitutional office and the hub of all judicial proceedings in Buncombe. The job pays $137,238 a year.
The clerk, through assistants and deputies, is responsible for civil proceedings, including wills and estates, adoptions, guardianships and foreclosures, and in criminal cases, issues arrest and search warrants. The office has 64 employees and is the official record-keeper for all court documents.
Cogburn, 66, became the clerk in January 2009, when he was appointed to serve the last two years of the previous clerk’s term. He won in four subsequent elections and in 2022 ran unopposed.
Buncombe Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg will now name a replacement, who will serve until the next general election in 2024.
Cogburn did not respond to questions about the timing of his retirement. Had he stepped down before last year’s election, voters would have selected the next clerk.
Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper said he was unfamiliar with the circumstances of Cogburn’s retirement. “Clearly things happen in people’s lives,” he said. “If it really is just a retirement, I think it does raise some questions about why this didn’t happen before and why he didn’t let the voters decide.”
Historically, Cooper said, politicians have engaged in “strategic retirements, where they purposefully time their retirements during certain administrations or certain times. . . It is a way to try to pick your successor. And I don’t know enough to know whether this is such a case, but if it was, it wouldn’t be the first.”
Asked if he would be making recommendations to Thornburg, Cogburn said, “I have given him my thoughts on the matter but the choice is his alone.”
Clerk’s Record System a Relic
Ron Payne, a former Buncombe County superior court judge, said the clerk’s office “is absolutely critical to the efficient operation of the courts at every level.”
“To have good, competent people, which we have had, it’s just so important,” Payne said. “As far as Steve, he did a great job. I really hate to hear of him retiring, but I certainly am going to wish him well.”
Lawyers and others with business at the Buncombe courthouse may know the clerk’s office more for its 1980s-era paper-based record system. Criminal case files consist of envelopes with folded documents and hand-written notes of proceedings. Judges presiding over cases are often presented with stacks of envelopes held together with rubber bands.
“That’s a state issue,” Payne said. “The legislature funds the court systems, including the clerks.”
Buncombe District Attorney Todd Williams described Buncombe’s court records system in a 2020 interview with Asheville Watchdog: “Everything is on paper, in paper files that have to be trucked around the courthouse, moved in these metal bins from courtroom to courtroom … A clerk is scribbling in pencil on a docket that gets Xeroxed and sent over to the jail so the jail can figure out who to release at the end of the day.”
Cogburn said at the time that Buncombe was due for a technology upgrade from the state in 2021.
“The roll-out has been delayed due to a need to construct an EWARRANT system,” he said in an April 2022 email. “I expect that Wake County will go live in 60 to 90 days. Thereafter it will slowly move across the state.”
Cogburn hails from a well-known family in Buncombe legal and political circles. His father, Max, was a county judge and chairman of the Buncombe County Democratic Party, and his brother, Max O. Cogburn, Jr., is a federal judge in Asheville. His son, Clint, is an Asheville attorney.
Cogburn plans to stay through March, according to the clerk’s office.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.