Johnston County shares the 11th Judicial District with Harnett and Lee counties, and of the eight judge races on this year’s ballot, only one is contested. Two-term incumbent Paul Holcombe is defending his seat on the bench against Benson lawyer LeVonda Wood.
District Court is the workhorse of the county’s judicial system, dealing with traffic tickets, misdemeanor criminal cases, settlements in felony cases and civil cases up to $25,000. It’s also the setting for juvenile cases, mental health commitments and family matters.
Holcombe won his seat on the bench in 2008 after working as a prosecutor for 14 years. As an undergrad, he attended UNC-Chapel Hill, then went on to the University of Tennessee for law school. He worked for nine years as an assistant district attorney outside of Nashville and then for five more years in North Carolina, including two years as an assistant district attorney in Johnston County. As a career prosecutor, Holcombe acknowledged that becoming a judge had been something of a professional goal.
“It was my desire to someday serve as a judge because of the importance of the role played by judges within our judicial system,” Holcombe said. “The District Court is the people’s court; it’s the court that the average citizen is most likely to be involved in. I’m running because I truly enjoy the opportunity to enhance the Johnston County community through my service. It is important for our society that we elect and reelect judges who apply their experience in a way that is both fair and with integrity.”
District Court deals largely in basic crimes, but it’s also the emotional heart of the local judicial system, serving as the stage for divorce proceedings, custody suits and some cases of domestic violence. For the last three years, Holcombe has spent his Wednesdays presiding over abuse and neglect cases in Johnston County, which he called one of the greatest responsibilities of District Court.
“Judges are entrusted with what is ultimately a significant and impactful decision, which is when and if to reunify a family after there’s found to be abuse or neglect,” Holcombe said. “The court plays a critical role in looking out for and protecting Johnston County children.”
In cases where juveniles find themselves on the other side of the law, Holcombe said the court has to recognize that teenagers are still developing and that a visit to the courtroom should be instructive, not destructive. He noted his support for North Carolina raising its minimum age a person can be tried as an adult from 16 to 18.
“We need to ensure that whatever actions are taken promote the continued development of juveniles to being productive citizens, in addition to holding them accountable and protecting the community,” Holcombe said. “We should ensure that the 16- or 17-year-old who commits an offense is not put at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in surrounding areas in future efforts for jobs and admission to schools.”
Wood has been an attorney in private practice for 11 years, working in everything from traffic court and insurance suits to criminal matters. She attended UNC Chapel Hill and actually worked as a microbiologist before attending law school at Campbell University. Wood said she went to law school to embrace her analytical-thinking skills and said she wants to join the bench because she’s learned so much of the law depends on perspective.
“I have learned that justice depends on the law and on who is interpreting and applying the law,” Wood said. “As a judge, I can and will help ensure that our courts are a place of justice. I will render honest, impartial and independent decisions and everyone appearing before me will receive the same brand of justice.”
Wood has represented clients in custody and domestic matters and that experience has informed her views on how she might reach judgments. She said a number of matters go into making a custody decision, chief among them the age and safety of the child, then the wishes of the parents and child. She said parents should be willing to insulate children from the marital discord at the heart of custody battles, and she would weigh parental track records when making custody decisions.
“I will consider the child’s best interest and welfare when determining custody of a minor child,” Wood said.
Crime has to be acknowledged, Wood said, whether it’s committed by adults or juveniles. In sentencing juveniles, she hopes to put an emphasis on rehabilitation.
“In sentencing juveniles who have been adjudicated delinquent, dispositions should meet the public’s safety needs, the juvenile’s treatment needs and the victim’s needs” Wood said. “Disposition should include rehabilitation measures designed to help juvenile offenders alter their behavior so they do not end up cyclically repeating delinquent acts.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson
Educational background: bachelor’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill, law school at the University of Tennessee.
Professional experience: prosecutor, 1994-2003 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., 2003-2007 in Cabarrus County and two years in Johnston County.
Political experience: two-term District Court judge, first elected 2008.
Family: married, two daughters.
Educational background: bachelor’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill, law school at Campbell University.
Professional experience: attorney in private practice for 11 years.
Political experience: unsuccessfully ran for open District Court seats in 2012 and 2014.
Family: mother, father and one sister.
Website: LeVonda G. Wood Facebook page.