After Christmas, on a flight back to Durham, I had been buckled into my seat for two hours when the pilot announced there would be another delay.
I groaned, “I have got to be in jail tomorrow.”
The woman sitting next to me looked a bit startled. She eyed my faded blue jeans and sweatshirt and glanced down at my wrists to see if there were any handcuffs.
“What did you do?”
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Before she could hit the flight attendant button, I explained: “No, I work there. I’m assigned the be the judge at the jail in the morning.”
“Well, you certainly don’t look like a judge,” she said. “Are you anything like Judge Judy? She’s a hoot.”
“No, lace collars aren’t my thing,” I said. “Neither is disrespecting or belittling people who come into court.”
For the next hour we talked about judges and the legal system: What kind of cases do I hear? What are ‘problem solving courts’ and is there a ‘school to prison pipeline’? Do drug courts work? Can rich people buy their way out of the system? Do I like being a judge?
The conversation I had with a stranger on the plane is what I have been asked to write about in a monthly column. Take readers inside the court system. Demystify it, describe it, and show how court experiences change people’s lives. And answer the question: Does our system of justice mend what has been broken?
For seventeen years, I have worked as a district court judge. I have presided over criminal, family, juvenile, traffic, criminal, civil and drug courts. In 2010, I was appointed by the N.C. Supreme Court chief justice to be the chief district court judge in Durham, which means in addition to my daily court sessions, I assign other judges to specific courtrooms and supervise staff and 18 criminal and civil magistrates.
This column is about what is it like to be a judge. What my feelings are when on Jan 4, I presided over the first appearance of a 16- and 18- year old charged with murder. As I explained the charges against them, I saw their bewildered, blank eyes. Although they are presumed innocent until a trial or plea, I thought of how many lives have been irreparably shattered and altered as their cases begin to slowly snake through the judicial system.
And on the same January morning, a star high school football player, 17 years old, dressed in an orange jump sat on the jail bench as the prosecutor read out his charge of selling eight bags of marijuana. As I considered his bond amount, two women in the audience asked to be heard.
I expected them to ask me to lower his bond so his family could have him back at home and that they would guarantee he would appear in court for his next court date. Instead, they informed me they were his aunts, that his mother was too ashamed to come see her son in jail and they pleaded with me to keep his bond “high” as they were afraid if he was released, he would be found dead on the streets. They said he had just joined a gang and he was safer in jail.
I did not lower his bond. I want him alive too.
And so goes a day in district court. When I zip up the black robe every morning and stare out at a standing room only courtroom, the one thing on my mind is to do right. Listen, be respectful, be fair.
District Court is much more than criminal cases. It encompasses families going through divorces and custody battles. Juveniles who are abused or neglected by parents. Traffic court with speeding, seat belt and drunk driving charges. Child support, landlord-tenant controversies. Involuntary commitments. I learn about people’s lives and see them stand in a courtroom with remorse, anger, revenge and decency.
My role as a judge is to do justice when justice seems unimaginable. UNC Professor Jim Drennan once said that judges do three things: They do what the law mandates. They can’t do what the law prohibits. And when the law permits discretion, fairness is the core value.
With this column, I appreciate the monthly opportunities to reflect upon the cases and stories that remind me, every day, with every case, that this job which allows me to use my discretion, with fairness, to serve people seeking justice, is truly awesome.
To be continued.
Marcia Morey is the chief district court judge in Durham County. She can be reached at Marciahmorey@gmail.com.