PW exclusive: Candidates Tricia Shields and April Wood seek open Court of Appeals seat

PW exclusive: Candidates Tricia Shields and April Wood seek open Court of Appeals seat

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[Editor’s note: As part of our ongoing effort to inform North Carolinians about the state judiciary, Policy Watch is publishing a series of Q&A’s with the candidates seeking statewide judicial office this fall. Each of the 16 candidates (six who are contesting three Supreme Court seats and ten who are contesting five seats on the Court of Appeals) was asked the same seven questions by former PW Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter Melissa Boughton. Candidates were not given instructions about the length of their responses, which have been edited only for grammar.]

Installment No. 4 in the series focuses on the race for Seat #4 on the North Carolina Court of Appeals between Republican April Wood and Democrat Tricia Shields. Earlier this month, the two candidates appeared in a WUNC-TV segment that can be viewed by clicking here.

The court is currently made up of 15 judges who review trial court proceedings for errors of law or legal procedure. They decide only questions of law, not questions of fact, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. The role of the court is to decide if the trial court correctly applied the law, or if there was prejudicial error in the conduct of the trial.

Candidates for Court of Appeals Seat 4:

Name: Tricia Shields

Party affiliation: Democrat

Website: https://www.shieldsforjudge.com/

What characteristics do you believe make a good judge, and why should North Carolinians vote for you (please include info about any courtroom and or trial court experience)?

A good Court of Appeals judge must have the ability to understand and apply the law, and the experience to appreciate the impact of the Court’s decisions on the parties in cases, as well as on the body of law. A Court of Appeals judge must be dedicated and willing to work hard and be able to write clearly. Additionally, a good judge should respect precedent, while being open to new ideas. A Court of Appeals judge should be impartial and independent, treat everyone who comes before him or her with dignity and respect, and have the highest level of professional ethics.

Our Court of Appeals hears a wide variety of cases, handling direct appeals from final decisions in our Superior Courts and District Courts, in nearly every area of the law. The Court also reviews decisions of the State’s administrative agencies, which affect the lives of many citizens of our state. Because of the broad jurisdiction of this Court, it is important to have judges from diverse backgrounds with broad legal experience.

I am uniquely qualified to serve on the Court of Appeals. I began my career 35 years ago as law clerk to Chief Judge Hedrick. Judge Hedrick taught me by example that a Court of Appeals Judge must be a student of the law, understand the law’s application to the facts of each case, and make decisions that are fair, impartial, and consistent. In the years since, I have had an active trial and appellate practice, representing North Carolinians before every level of our Court system, including our Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. I handled a wide variety of cases, including personal injury and malpractice claims, civil rights matters, administrative law cases, and complex business disputes. I am often hired by other attorneys to assist them on appeals in their cases, because my appellate experience.

In addition to my full-time practice, I have taught Trial Advocacy at Campbell Law School for the past seven years, helping to shape our next generation of lawyers.

I have been recognized by various groups for my abilities and professional ethics. Most recently, I was awarded the J. Robert Elster Award for Professional Excellence by the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys. That recipient of that award “must exemplify the highest standards of professionalism, integrity, and ethics, and conduct herself, or himself, in a civil, courteous manner with all persons. The recipient must exemplify sustained, excellent service to individual and corporate defendants in civil litigation, to the Bar, and to the community.” I was humbled to receive this award and would bring the characteristics that it embodies to the Court of Appeals.

How will you balance being an independent judge and an elected official?

The North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct requires all judges to ensure the “integrity and independence of the judiciary.” The Code also provides that a “judge should be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in it. A judge should be unswayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism.” This means that even though we elect our judges in North Carolina, judges serve all the people, the justice system, and the law.

I learned in my early experience as a law clerk to Chief Judge Hedrick that a judge must make decisions based on the law, without regard to their own personal opinions or political views, or whether those decisions will be popular. In my years of practicing law, I have voted for and supported elected judges.  In appearing before those judges, I have never expected or received favoritism from them. All that I have expected from judges is was fair consideration of my position, and I respect their decisions, whether or not I prevail.

I have received broad support of my candidacy from members of both political parties, as well as independent voters. I have support from lawyers’ groups who traditionally represent plaintiffs, as well as those who represent defendants. I believe that I have received this support from all sides of the legal community because of my reputation as a person who keeps her word, and is fair with others.

As a Court of Appeals judge, I will make decisions based on the law, and uphold the Constitution. I come to this position with no political agenda. I will consider each case carefully, make sure that I understand the facts, and carefully apply the law to those facts.

How has COVID-19 changed your election campaigning if at all?

I had originally intended to travel across the state to meet voters in person. Of course, I have had to change that plan and have focused on contact with voters by email, use of social media, and telephone calls. I have also connected with voters in many wonderful and engaging Zoom events.

Do you believe systemic racism permeates our criminal justice system? If so, how do you plan to dismantle it to ensure equal access to justice for all North Carolinians under the law?

Yes. Data shows that stops, arrests, convictions and sentences are disproportionately higher for our Black citizens than our white citizens. I do not believe that progress can be made until our elected officials acknowledge that this disparity is real.

I believe that all humans have biases, and it is incumbent on all officials at all levels of the government to be cognizant of their own biases and work to avoid being influenced by them in their decision-making. I believe that all judges should engage in implicit bias training, and I commit to do so myself. In my current professional life, I have an intentionally racially diverse team, and we routinely discuss these issues and challenge each other as we work.

As a judge, I would honor my oath to uphold our constitution. Our North Carolina Constitution promises that all citizens will be treated equally in several places. Article I, Section 19 provides that “No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be subjected to discrimination by the State because of race, color, religion, or national origin.” Article 1, Section 18 mandates that “right and justice shall be administered” by our courts “without favor, denial, or delay.”

When a governmental act is challenged as unconstitutional, it is the duty of every judge, at every level of our court system, to determine if it complies with the constitution. If it does not, then it is the obligation of that judge to strike that law or act as unconstitutional. I would seriously analyze any constitutional challenge that came before me, carefully study any precedent of our Supreme Court on the issue, and uphold the constitution to the best of my ability.

How do you define injustice?

Fundamentally, injustice is unfairness. A law can be unjust if it mandates an unfair result. One example of this would be a statute that imposes an excessive punishment for a crime.

A law that appears fair on its face can be unjust if it is unequally applied. The concept of “equal protection under the law” means that everyone should be treated the same by our justice system, and the outcome of their case should not be altered by their race, gender, sexual orientation, social status or wealth.

To what extent do you believe that a judge should or should not defer to actions of a legislature?

The standard for the analysis of the level of deference that a judge should give to the legislature has been established by the decisions of our Supreme Court and prior decisions of the Court of Appeals. I would follow that precedent in reviewing actions of the legislature.

According to that precedent, it is the function of our courts to interpret the law, and not to legislate. In other words, a judge must uphold a law as written, even if he or she believes it should have been written differently, unless that law violates the constitution.

Our Supreme Court has held that the courts presume that the laws enacted by the legislature are constitutional, unless the constitutional violation is plain and clear. In determining whether the violation is plain and clear, the courts look to the text of the constitution itself, the historical context of the constitutional provision and the precedent of the Supreme Court.

While the standard for finding a statute to be unconstitutional is high, this does not mean that the courts are a rubber stamp for the legislature. In fact, our Supreme Court has also held that when a statute is challenged as unconstitutional, the courts have an affirmative duty to determine whether it exceeds constitutional limits. Further, our courts have held that were a statute is shown to have been enacted for a racially discriminatory purpose, that act is not entitled to judicial deference.

What are the biggest changes you think North Carolina needs to make to its judicial system?

The biggest challenge to our judicial system is identifying and eliminating inequities in the system and earning the trust of the public. Chief Justice [Cheri] Beasley has implemented important initiatives, relating to school and justice partnerships and a faith and justice alliance. Our Governor has also taken a significant step in this direction by creating the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.

We also need to improve technology in our court system.  While our federal courts have had systems for electronic filing and electronic access to court files for years, our North Carolina courts do not have a similar system. Initiatives are underway to put such a system in place.

Additionally, because of the pandemic, some courts have had remote hearings thought platforms such as Webex. This program has been very successful in Wake County and has helped to reduce the potential backlog of court hearings. Our Court of Appeals and Supreme Court have had remote oral arguments in cases, with online streaming of those proceedings. I believe that we should continue this practice in the future. Allowing the public to view proceedings online would increase access and transparency in the court system.

*****

Name: April Wood

Party affiliation: Republican

Website: www.judgewoodforcoa.com/

What characteristics do you believe make a good judge, and why should North Carolinians vote for you (please include info about any courtroom and or trial court experience)?

Fairness, impartiality, integrity, and a commitment to adherence to the rule of law all are essential characteristics of a good judge, and they are my greatest strengths. Another strength that makes me the best candidate for Seat 4 on the North Carolina Court of Appeals is my almost 18 years of hands-on judicial experience as a District Court Judge. I am the only candidate with judicial experience.

In 2002, the people in my district elected me, and I was sworn in as a District Court Judge. Since 2002, I have presided over tens of thousands of cases. As a District Court Judge, I preside over cases such as domestic violence cases, juvenile cases involving the Department of Social Services, juvenile delinquency cases, child custody and support cases, equitable distribution of marital property, criminal cases, traffic matters, involuntary commitments, and other civil law disputes. During my first term, I completed all of the requirements to become a Certified Juvenile Court Judge.

I am also the Truancy Judge in Davie County where I am committed to doing what is necessary to resolve the issues that are causing children to be unlawfully absent from school, and that commitment has helped reduce the dropout rate in the community. Civil jury trials occur in district court, and the longest jury trial I presided over lasted almost three weeks and involved several complicated issues. Because it was a complicated case and involved large sums of money, it was appealed. The Court of Appeals found no error in my decisions in the trial and unanimously affirmed the decision. Prior to being elected as a judge, I was an attorney in private practice and tried a wide variety of cases in district and superior courts and handled administrative, real estate, and transactional matters.

Believing that even judges should continue to be students of the law, I enrolled in the masters program that is jointly offered to judges by Campbell Law School and England’s Nottingham School of Law to obtain my LL.M. in Judicial Studies, and I am working toward obtaining a degree from both universities. This unique opportunity has allowed me to continue to hone my analytical and writing skills.

How will you balance being an independent judge and an elected official?

Throughout the years, I have demonstrated that I am fair and impartial. I was first elected in 2002 and have been re-elected every four years thereafter, and I have been balancing being an independent judge and an elected official for almost 18 years. Every party that appears in front of me is treated with the same fairness, dignity, and respect as any other party regardless of who they are, what position they hold, or who their lawyer is. Each party has a right to be heard, and a judge’s job is to listen to all of the competent evidence presented in court before making a decision.

A judge has a duty to follow the law as it is written, not to make a decision based on what he/she thinks the law should be. I have consistently demonstrated that I will uphold the law and will always try to make the right decision without regard to whether or not it will be popular with voters or any political party. Integrity is doing what is right even when no one is watching, and I believe that I have demonstrated that I am a person of integrity. It is my judicial philosophy, not my political affiliation, that guides my independent decision-making on the bench.

How has COVID-19 changed your election campaigning if at all?

Prior to the current pandemic, I was spending most weekends traveling across North Carolina campaigning and meeting voters at various events. The current pandemic has significantly impacted my ability to meet voters and supporters in person. Traditionally, candidates have been able to attend parades, fairs, rallies, fundraisers, and other events in order to educate the voters about their campaigns and garner support. The prohibition on mass gatherings have eliminated those traditional ways of campaigning. My campaign has become mostly virtual since March. I am looking forward to being able to travel across the state and campaign in person again as soon as it is safe to do so.

Do you believe systemic racism permeates our criminal justice system? If so, how do you plan to dismantle it to ensure equal access to justice for all North Carolinians under the law?

Public perception of the justice system is a great obstacle to justice in the courts. Some people believe that status or money can buy anything, even a favorable ruling in court. Some people believe that the entire system is racist because of the actions of a few people. Everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, religion, social status, professional status or any other status. Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way that not everyone shares this belief. Some judges favor some races or special interest groups over others. Some lawyers think that judges should treat their friends differently even if that would require a judge to cover up a lawyer’s misconduct, but that is highly unethical. It is no wonder why so many people are skeptical about the legal profession and the court system.

If you look at some of the polls out there, many people do not trust the court system and do not believe that there is justice in the courts. That saddens me. People should be able to trust that if chance or circumstance lands them in court that they can receive a fair and just outcome. Every judge is different, and every judge handles cases and situations from his or her own individual perspective. There needs to be more training for judges about implicit bias and professional ethics in order for the system to be improved and for equal access to justice to be assured.

How do you define injustice?

Injustice is unfairness. If someone does not receive a fair and just outcome, then an injustice has occurred. If someone’s basic human rights or constitutional rights have been violated, then and injustice has occurred. If someone has been treated unequally to others because of his or her race, religion, social status, professional status, or any there status, then an injustice has occurred.

To what extent do you believe that a judge should or should not defer to actions of a legislature?

A judge has a duty to follow the law as it is written, not to make the law what he or she wishes it was.  Judges are not legislators and are not supposed to be making the law; they are supposed to interpret and apply the law as written. However, the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and the N.C. Constitution is the supreme law of the state. If legislators make laws that are contrary to the U.S. Constitution or to the N.C. Constitution, then the Courts should strike down those laws as being unconstitutional.

What are the biggest changes you think North Carolina needs to make to its judicial system?

The greatest obstacles to justice in the courts, in my opinion, are the lack of appropriate funding and public perception of the judicial system. There is a lack of appropriate funding for district attorneys, court appointed attorneys, probation, required programs in civil court, and many other areas in the judicial system.  Without adequate funding, necessary programs cannot run appropriately and meet their stated goals and the wheels of justice move slowly, if at all. The cost of litigation, court fees, filing fees, and fees related to the completion of required programs for civil, criminal, and juvenile cases, such as substance abuse classes, anger management classes, domestic violence classes, or other required programs can keep people from doing what is necessary to change their lives, get their driver’s license reinstated, or even reunify with their children in foster care. There needs to be a substantive change to the system to remove financial barriers to justice for the people who are trying to fulfill their obligations but lack the funding to do so.