The candidates in two District Court races in Johnston, Harnett and Lee counties say they all have the same goal: to treat the people of the three counties fairly. They say their unique perspectives would best serve that goal.
Joy Jones and LeVonda Wood, two attorneys in private practice, are competing for the seat of retiring Judge Andy Corbett. In the other race, Judge Caron Stewart hopes to keep her seat in a race again attorney Ken Jones.
Stewart vs. Jones
When Judge Winston Gilchrist left the District Court bench mid-term in 2012, the bar associations in Johnston, Harnett and Lee counties nominated Stewart to fill the vacant seat; the vote was 99-22. Gov. Bev Perdue then appointed her to the bench.
A native of southeastern North Carolina, Stewart is an East Carolina University graduate who earned her law degree from Campbell University in 1986. She passed the bar that same year.
Over her 28-year legal career, Stewart said, she has handled thousands of cases in District Court. She said her passion is advocating for women and children who are victims of abuse.
“That’s where you can make a difference – make decisions for families and children and hope you can put them in a safe and comfortable home,” she said.
Stewart’s husband, Vernon K. Stewart, is the district attorney in Harnett and Lee counties, and that means his wife cannot preside in criminal court there. Her opponent says that is a shortcoming, but Stewart said the restriction hasn’t been a problem during her time on the bench. And she adds that lawyers knew about the conflict when they overwhelmingly nominated her for the bench.
“The fact is we have so many courts going on even without me in criminal court in Harnett and Lee counties,” Stewart said.
Her varied experience as an attorney and judge qualifies her for the job she has held for two years now, Stewart said. “Until you’ve done it, it’s new,” she said. “It’s like learning how to ride a bike. I’ve done it in every single aspect, for the plaintiff and for the defendant.”
Jones, her challenger, is a native of Upstate New York who came to North Carolina in 1989 to get his master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University.
After graduating in 1991, Jones spent nearly eight years working as an environmental consultant with a firm in Research Triangle Park. But he had always planned to go to law school, and in 1998, he enrolled at Campbell University. Since 2001, he’s been in private practice in Smithfield.
In that practice, Jones takes on cases in real estate, divorce, criminal defense and juvenile matters, among others. He has no experience as a prosecutor, but he thinks that would benefit him on the bench.
“I think it’s important to have judges who are not prosecutors,” he said. “As a judge, you are supposed to be unbiased, impartial, and prosecutors tend to think that you’re guilty.”
As a lawyer, Jones said, he has interacted with many judges – some more fair than others. He wants to be a judge because he thinks he can do a thorough, fair job.
“I think that everybody should be treated fairly,” he said. “No preconceived notions of right or wrong. I don’t always see that in my practice with judges.”
Jones said he prides himself on being a hardworking self-starter who doesn’t rely on politics or political favors to advance his career.
“I’m not part of the old boys’ network. I don’t owe anybody any political favors,” he said. “I’ve pretty much paid for my campaign myself.”
Jones vs. Wood
Joy Jones says she has always had to work hard. She grew up on a tobacco and sweet potato farm at McGee’s Crossroads and used that money to pay for college. She attended law school at night in Indiana while also working full time for the Marion County prosecutor’s office in Indianapolis.
It was hard to balance work and school, but she had a goal in mind, Jones said. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “I just went ahead and said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ I loved what I did for a living.”
Jones has 32 years of legal experience – seven as a paralegal and 25 as a lawyer. After graduating from law school, she and her husband at the time moved to San Diego because of his job. She passed the bar in California and got a job in the district attorney’s office in San Diego, where she specialized in cases involving gangs and narcotics. After 10 years in Southern California, she decided it was time to come home to Johnston County.
In North Carolina, Jones has worked for the attorney general, for the Smithfield law firm of Narron, O’Hale & Whittington and in her own private practice, which she opened in 2008. In private practice, she focuses mostly on defense in criminal cases.
Though focused on criminal cases, Jones said she has experience in civil matters, including child-custody cases, which come up in District Court. Also, she has worked with the Johnston County Department of Social Services Department as a guardian, Jones said.
“My reputation is fairness – that I’m fair from both sides of the aisle,” she said.
A judgeship is the natural next step, Jones said. “All my years doing this – I know that it has prepared me for a judge position where I have the experience and the knowledge,” she said.
Wood grew up in Benson in an old cotton gin that her parents turned into a house. After graduating with honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, she went on to work in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.
She liked that her job required her to be meticulous and detail-oriented, but she wanted to spend more time working with people. That and a lifelong fascination with the Constitution were enough for her to pursue a law degree, which she earned from Campbell University in 2005.
Shortly after graduating from law school, Wood was robbed. That experience made her relationship with the law much more personal. She started her own law practice so she could seek justice for victims of crime and the wrongly accused.
Throughout her legal career, Wood said, she has become acquainted with every aspect of the justice system – the good and the bad.
“I saw the pitfalls in the system,” she said. “I saw the potential for people to be wrongly identified. I can empathize with the victim, but at the same time I see the need for criminals to be justly punished.”
Wood is a strict constitutional constructionist who said she thinks the law of the land doesn’t get as much defense as it used to. As a result, she said, many of our personal freedoms are being taken away.
She wants to become a judge so she can defend the Constitution as it was written. “I am a big proponent (of the Constitution),” she said. “It’s not our job to make the law the way we interpret it. It should be read as it is written.”
If elected, Wood’s goal is to make sure the people she deals with are treated with the same respect, “from the richest person to little animals who don’t have a voice,” she said.
“We are expected to be fair and impartial and follow the law impartially, and that I can promise to do based on the law and facts and circumstances surrounding the case,” Wood said.