In this year’s elections, voters will be asked to select a candidate to serve an eight-year term as an Associate Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court. The candidates on the ballot are incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson, attorney Anita Earls, and attorney Chris Anglin. All three candidates sat down with North Carolina Lawyers Weekly reporter Bill Cresenzo this month to answer an identical slate of questions. As a public service, Lawyers Weekly is making its election coverage free to view online without a subscription. We encourage you to share our coverage with your friends and neighbors who may be seeking more information about the candidates.
Candidate: Justice Barbara Jackson
How would you describe your judicial philosophy?
I believe judges should follow the law, not make the law. We have a very different function than the legislative and executive branches. It is really important that we are looking at things in a different way and make sure we are not bringing anyone in from the outside to help us make policy decisions like the legislative and executive branches are able to do.
What do you believe makes you the best candidate to serve on the bench as an Associate Justice, based on your experience and any other factors that you think are important in a good justice?
First and foremost, I have been an appellate judge for almost 14 years. That experience is invaluable. This is the state’s court of last resort. I think it’s very important that I am the only candidate in this race with any judicial experience. I know from personal experience that there’s a learning curve from being a lawyer to joining the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. When you join the Supreme Court, you are the junior justice. You take over the administrative duties of the court–basically the secretary of the court. You learn how cases get disposed of. Even if you are an experienced attorney, there is a lot to learn.
The General Assembly recently reinstituted partisan elections for Supreme Court races. What are your thoughts on how the shift to partisan elections might affect the state’s judiciary?
I am not sure it’s going to affect the judiciary. I am concerned that it could affect public perception of the judiciary. I think judges take an oath to uphold the laws and constitution of the state, and the judges I know take that oath very seriously. I have run in two nonpartisan elections, one for the Court of Appeals and one for the Supreme Court, and this one does have a different feel to it than those did. But at the end of the day, my job remains the same. I have the dual obligations of being both a candidate and a continuing justice on the court. So I am keeping these two things very separate. The public and the legal community can have a lot of confidence in our Supreme Court. Since 2011, our decisions have been unanimous between 75 and 85 percent of the time. This year, we are around 80 percent. I think that is a long enough period of time that it’s meaningful. And this occurred both when there were four Republicans and three Democrats, and on the current court, which has four Democrats and three Republicans.
If elected, what would you do to ensure that all citizens can be assured that the court is handling its duties in an objective and non-partisan manner?
I have been doing that now for 14 years. I have authored close to 700 opinions, and the legal community and the public have had the opportunity to look at those and make the decision of whether I am being fair and impartial. I don’t think you can say I have ruled in favor of plaintiffs or defendants with any predictability. I think I have been straight down the middle. I think it is critical that every one of us who takes the position of judge is fair and impartial and adheres to the law. One thing that is a factor with my background on the court and the Court of Appeals before that, both of the elections I ran in previously had public financing. In 2004, when I ran, I didn’t qualify for public financing. I ran a statewide campaign on about $30,000. In 2010, when I did qualify for public financing, my average contribution was $70. I think one of the benefits of the public financing program was that it took away any sense that there was accountability to any particular donor, because the maximum donation you could take from anyone was $1,000. So it’s very different when you are looking at today’s races where if there had been a primary you would have been able to take $10,000. With the absence of a primary we can still take only $5,200, but that’s still a big change from the amounts that were available to candidates under public financing.
We’ve written extensively about the low volume of opinions authored by the Supreme Court in recent years, particularly for civil cases. Do you think the court is producing a sufficiently robust body of case law, and if not, what do you think the court can or should do to increase its output?
Since I joined the court, we may have dipped down a little bit in output, but we have steadily been increasing since the 2014-2015 time frame. In fact, this year, we have already issued about 70 opinions. Not every one of those options is authored, but we are on track for a very high volume of opinions this year. Although Business Court cases may not be large in number, they are very complex and labor-intensive to write. I know that because I have authored a number of them. Starting Jan. 1, we are going to see a tremendous amount of output because we are going to start getting the termination of parental rights cases. That is going to add approximately 100 cases to our docket next year and that is going to have a very significant impact on the court.
We’ve also written extensively about the ongoing crisis in access to justice. What do you think the state’s judiciary can do or should do to ensure that all citizens have and can afford access to justice?
I commend our Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism. One of the things he has instituted is a pro bono honor roll that recognizes attorneys who contribute 50 hours of pro bono service annually. He is also encouraging law students to become involved with pro bono service. I think it’s great to incorporate that for students in law school. It would be wonderful if we saw a restoration of legal services to its former self. I realize we don’t have the power of the purse to make it happen, but we have the power of encouragement. We also have the power of putting in place better technology. That is something I have been very involved with. One of the things we have done this year is put up a new website. It is much more user-friendly for citizens and for people of more modest means who cannot afford an attorney or choose not to get an attorney. We had 64 different subject experts working on that website. We are providing education in a variety of different formats. We actually have a cartoon showing how the eviction process begins in small claims court and how it proceeds to the Supreme Court. There are caricatures of all seven of us. For someone who has limited reading ability, that provides another way for them to learn. The website is also available in the most five prevalent languages in the state, right now, which includes Burmese. It is not a solution, but it is certainly an assist.
Are there any lawyers or judges, either ones you’ve worked with personally or whose work you admire, who have especially influenced your views on how to be a good judge?
I had the privilege when I graduated law school to clerk with Burley Mitchell when he was an associate justice. Justice Mitchell is one of the exceptional lawyers and judges who is very, very smart and has an extraordinary command of the law, but isn’t flashy and applies a lot of common sense to decisions. It was a wonderful opportunity for me as a young lawyer to come and work with him and learn from him. I also have admiration for Chief Justice Mark Martin. I have known him for 30 years and have seen him grow as a lawyer and as a judge. I admire a lot of the programs he is seeking to put in place and his advocacy of the judicial branch. He sets a great example for all of us. When Hurricane Florence was coming through, he was hard at work here in Raleigh making sure those eastern counties were going to get the relief they need and talking to other chief justices in Louisiana and Texas to find out how they handled similar natural disasters in their states.
What would you consider to be your proudest day or moment of your career to date?
On one hand, you are elated when getting sworn into the Supreme Court and getting to share that with my mother and husband was a tremendous day. Sharing the Court of Appeals swearing in with my dad, who was still alive then, was also an amazing moment. None of us ever expected that I would become a judge or that I would be elected to statewide office. I think, too, there are some of the decisions that I have had the opportunity to author, and one I authored on the Court of Appeals particularly resonates with me. It was a young man who was in foster care. He was a recipient of disability payments through his stepfather, who had passed away. He also had a Habitat for Humanity home through him. DSS ultimately had custody of him and rather than making payments on this house for him, which had substantial equity, they chose to reimburse themselves for the cost of his care. The Guardian ad Litem program took that to the district court and the court ruled in his favor. We upheld the ruling that they had the fiduciary duty for his best interest, so when he transitioned out of foster care, he had a home to move in to. So many of our foster kids don’t have that. Transition for foster kids is so difficult. When they turn 18, their benefits turn off.
Is there anything we didn’t ask you about that you think it would good for voters to know to help them make their decision?
On Jan. 1, 2019, if I am honored to be reelected, I walk back into the door with no learning curve. I continue to work on things that add value to the court system, like more technology. It is extremely important that we move forward with electronic filing for the entire court system. I personally work in a paperless environment. Not only will it make things more convenient for lawyers and judges, but also for citizens. It will make things more transparent, too. It is really hard for us to get data and analytics across the entire 100 counties in the state, because we are a unified court system, but we are not a uniform court system. Different counties track information differently, so sometimes you are comparing apples to oranges. Our state is very diverse in many ways–our population, race, age, gender, but also in terms of geography and economics. There are very real disparities between the more urban courthouses in Wake County, Mecklenburg, Guilford, and Forsyth, and some the rural counties like Terrell and Ashe counties. It is tough because funding is really tight. We have to figure out how to crack that nut and how we are going to get broadband and internet access to those rural courthouses to help them function at the same level that we do here.