In this year’s elections, voters will be asked to select two candidates to serve eight-year terms as associate justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court. As we’ve done in previous Supreme Court elections, Lawyers Weekly reached out to all of the candidates on the ballot and asked them to complete our Candidate Q&As. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Q&As were conducted entirely via email.
Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman’s responses are provided below. Inman’s opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Phil Berger Jr., did not respond to multiple emails sent to his campaign.
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Judge Lucy Inman – Candidate for Associate Justice
How would you describe your judicial philosophy?
My judicial philosophy is most simply described as one of honesty and dedication to the rule of law. I adhere to fundamental principles to address an infinite array of legal issues. Perhaps the best evidence of the differences in judicial philosophy between me and my opponent is to review decisions in which we have offered conflicting analyses. Those decisions include Swan Beach v. Town of Corolla, 255 N.C.App. 837 (2017), aff’d, 371 N.C. 110 (2018); Routten v. Routten, 262 N.C. App. 436 (2018), rev’d, 374 N.C. 571 (2020); State v. Keller, 265 N.C. App. 526 (2019), rev’d 374 N.C. 637; and Farm Bureau v. Martin, 833 S.E.2d 183 (N.C. Ct. App. 2019).
A label like “originalism” is a constraining, and in my view misleading, description of judicial philosophy. Following a default and unyielding interpretive approach is like setting a ship’s wheel in one direction and staying the course without adjustment, even if it smashes on the rocks.
To interpret the federal and state constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, contracts, wills, and other legal authorities and instruments, I employ a tiered approach designed to foster impartiality, stability, and equal protection under the law.
I always start with the text. If the language is plain and unambiguous, no further analysis is necessary. This approach, generally known as textualism or the “plain meaning rule,” is long established in our federal and state caselaw. But an inflexible adherence to textualism runs a great risk of mistake and/or intellectual dishonesty. Judges may proclaim that their authority qualifies them alone to know best the “plain meaning” of a given text. But your readers won’t be surprised to know that well respected lawyers, judges, and scholars can have reasonable disagreements about what a given text plainly means. When that happens, I consider the disputed word or phrase in the context of a larger sentence, or paragraph, or section, or chapter. Universally accepted rules of grammar may help resolve a question about the meaning of a word or phrase that is ambiguous in isolation. This approach, sometimes called “structuralism,” is premised on respect for the integrity of the larger framework of laws.
Another important tool is the doctrine of stare decisis—how the same court or a higher court has interpreted the same text in earlier decisions. Following precedent is required for all decisions except those addressing issues of first impression, because the public relies on the fundamental expectation that the law will be applied consistently. A court should overrule its own precedent only on rare occasions when supported by a most compelling reason, such as the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education overruling its 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Still other canons apply in specific contexts. For example, well established precedents require that statutory and contractual provisions in derogation of common law, such as restrictions on a private landowner’s use of his land, must be strictly construed, while legislative schemes that are remedial in nature, such as workers compensation statutes, should be liberally construed.
In short, it is necessary to use an array of interpretive tools to achieve consistency and fairness. When a scalpel is the right tool, a meat axe can have ruinous results.
What do you believe makes you the best candidate to serve as an associate justice?
Working for three decades in the trial and appellate courts has prepared me to serve as an associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Presiding in thousands of trials and hearings across our state, working with prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, and citizens who come to court as parties, witnesses, and jurors have prepared me to understand the real people involved in cases that make their way to the appellate courts. Authoring more than 450 appellate opinions and participating in thousands of other appellate decisions have prepared me to resolve difficult legal conflicts impartially and consistent with the rule of law. Working with other appellate judges of all political stripes has taught me that robust debate ultimately makes the resulting opinion(s) better for the court, the parties, and the general public.
I also have been well prepared to serve as an associate justice by upbringing in a household that valued public service, diverse perspectives, and the search for truth. My first career as a newspaper reporter taught me that every person who comes to court—including people who cannot agree on anything else—wants the same thing from the judge—to be heard and be treated fairly and with respect.
Do you believe that systemic racism is a problem in our criminal justice system? What do you believe the judiciary can and should do to ensure that all residents are afforded equal protection under the law?
The United States Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution require equal protection under the law for everyone. Despite these principles, racial bias is ingrained in our institutional history, including our statutory and case law. Acknowledging systemic racism does not require attributing ill will or racist intent to any person working in our criminal justice system today. Denying the problem prevents us from addressing it and undermines public confidence in our justice system.
Longstanding effective tools to protect against racism in our criminal justice system include requiring a verbatim transcript of all criminal trial proceedings, so that appellate judges can review the record and evaluate claims of bias. Police body cameras and citizen mobile phone records also provide helpful information in specific cases.
Within the judicial branch, trial judges have the greatest power to afford citizens equal protection under the law, because trial judges are authorized to exercise discretion in imposing punishments and conditions of pretrial incarceration. Tailoring these decisions to the specific facts of a crime and to an individual defendant’s culpability, potential risk of harm, and ability to post bail or pay costs and fees make our criminal justice system more fair without compromising public safety. Authorizing Superior Court judges, in addition to prosecutors, to schedule cases for trial can avoid the risk and appearance of a prosecutor coercing a defendant, through repeated mandatory settings and last minute continuances, to plead guilty rather than go to trial.
Appellate judges can and should acknowledge when cases and legal issues before them involve racial conflict. Appellate judges can and should acknowledge when their decisions and the laws they interpret have a disparate impact on individuals and/or communities of color, even when that impact does not violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. Appellate judges can and should resolve all equal protection challenges that are brought before the courts.
All Judges can and should participate in implicit bias training to understand their potential for biased decision making. Kicking the tires of one’s own car—and inviting colleagues and trusted professionals to kick them—is especially important for people in powerful positions whose authority is largely unquestioned.
Supreme Court candidates now run for office as partisan candidates and are often called upon to resolve partisan political disputes. How can the court ensure that citizens can trust it to resolve all disputes in a fair and objective manner?
Appellate judges’ written opinions should demonstrate that they have heard and impartially considered each party’s concerns by accurately and honestly reciting the facts of record and the applicable law. A judge must explain her analysis in language that the average person can understand. I learned this in middle school math. You don’t get full credit if you just give the answer. You must explain your work. Then lawyers, parties, other courts, and the public can assess whether the court’s reasoning is sound. If a judge is pursuing a political agenda rather than following the law, that effort will show in the written opinion. The public should be able to rely on legal scholars and journalists—like those at Lawyers Weekly—to comb through opinions to look for the difference between intellectual honesty and partisan bias.
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?
The authority of trial and appellate judges to ensure access to justice is largely limited to the cases that come before the court. But within their authority to express opinions and advocate for reforms in the administration of justice, judges can help address the gap in access to legal representation and legal process. Unlike criminal defendants, most civil litigants have no right to court-appointed counsel. But starting a few years ago at the Court of Appeals, and now also at the Supreme Court, indigent pro se litigants may obtain pro bono counsel through a program developed between the courts and the North Carolina Bar Association.
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?
Wade Smith, Donald Beskind, and Elizabeth Kuniholm are three lawyers who helped me learn the best attributes of a lawyer when I was in law school, and I have continued to learn from their work in the decades since first meeting them. Justices and judges with whom I have personally worked and who have influenced my work include former Chief Justices Jim Exum, Burley Mitchell and Henry Frye, former Justices Willis Whichard and Robert Orr, former Court of Appeals Judges Sanford Steelman, Linda Stephens and Robert Hunter, former Superior Court Judges Howard Manning and Robert Hobgood, and former District Court judge Patricia Devine.
What would you consider to be your proudest day or moment of your career to date?
I have been proud to stand up for clients from all walks of life and to write careful and thoughtful appellate decisions. But I am most proud of an event not found in any court record. When I served as a Superior Court judge, I presided in a weeklong civil jury trial that did not go well for the plaintiff. He appeared frustrated and angry throughout the trial, including when he testified. The jury returned a verdict for the defendant. A week later, when I received a letter from the plaintiff thanking me for treating him with respect and making sure the trial was fair. By that time, the case was over and the plaintiff could gain no advantage from me. I do not remember his name. But he gave me the highest compliment anyone can give a judge.
Is there anything we didn’t ask you about that you think it would be good for voters to know to help them make their decision?
A wide variety of statewide organizations representing legal professionals and public interests have endorsed my candidacy, including the NC Association of Defense Attorneys, Advocates for Justice, Association of Employment Attorneys, Association of Women Attorneys, the Police Benevolent Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the NC Association of Educators, the Sierra Club, Poder NC, Equality NC, the National Association of Social Workers.