PW exclusive: Incumbent Chris Brook, challenger Jefferson Griffin vie for Court of Appeals seat

PW exclusive: Incumbent Chris Brook, challenger Jefferson Griffin vie for Court of Appeals seat

Democrat Chris Brook (L) and Republican Jefferson Griffin (R)

[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.]

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.

Installment No. 7 in the series focuses on the race for Seat #13 on the North Carolina Court of Appeals between Republican Jefferson Griffin and incumbent Democrat Chris Brook. Earlier this month, the two candidates appeared in a WUNC-TV segment that can be viewed by clicking here.

*A note about the Q&As: Candidates were not given instructions about the length of their responses, and they have only been edited for grammar.

Candidates for Court of Appeals Seat 13:

Name: Chris Brook

Party affiliation: Democrat

Website: www.keepjudgechrisbrook.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)?

I think the most important characteristics of a good judge are a strong work ethic, experience that provides you with the requisite skills, and a commitment to justice.

Though obvious, it is difficult to overstate how important it is for a judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals to work hard every day. I have written over 70 opinions in just over a year on the court and voted on more than 150 other cases and petitions. To give each case the attention it deserves requires diligence on a daily basis.

The volume and variety of cases we hear, including everything from criminal to family to worker’s compensation law, tries every member of our Court. I know from experience that the learning curve is steep for any new member of our Court, but, in my case, the skills I honed in my time as an advocate helped to prepare me for my new role. Before being appointed to the bench, my practice covered a wide range of subject matters throughout our state and federal court systems at both the trial and appellate level, including successfully leading litigation at the Supreme Court of the United States. This work required me to weigh competing legal arguments, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant facts, and then, whether through written briefs or oral arguments or both, distill the law and the facts down to the key points. Even with that background, however, I know I have become a much better judge based on the experience I have gained as a member of our Court. With every opinion I write, I strive to ever more concisely and clearly answer the legal questions before us.

Most importantly, I approach every case mindful of its importance to the litigants and with respect for every North Carolinian who appears before us. Respect to me means approaching every case with an open mind. Respect means not being a rubber stamp for any interest. Respect means following the law and facts where they lead instead of to a foreordained result. That is what justice demands of us.

I am the only candidate for this seat with meaningful appellate legal experience. And my opinions as a member of the North Carolina Court of Appeals speak to the value of this experience, my work ethic, my independence, and my commitment to justice.

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

I put being an independent judge first. No one reading this is going to agree with every one of the more than 70 opinions I have written as a judge on the Court of Appeals. But anyone who reads each of my opinions will see me doing my level best to apply the law honestly and faithfully to the facts of each of those cases. I am a firm believer that the politics will work itself out if I focus on doing my job well.

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

First and foremost, campaigns are the last thing a lot of people are thinking about right now. So many are worried about loved ones and putting food on the table. And so many, from medical professionals and researchers to folks keeping the shelves stocked at grocery stores, are working every day to lighten the burden for others. I feel great empathy for those who are struggling, tremendous appreciation for those working to get us through this moment, and immense gratitude that I have a job that I love where I can play a role in the fair and efficient operation of our justice system.

As you might imagine, the pandemic has changed my election campaigning immensely. In the spring and summer, we had campaign events scheduled for Pinehurst, Fayetteville, Asheville, Greensboro, Wilmington, and Raleigh. And, prior to the pandemic, most weeks would find me at multiple large events, be it a local bar association or Rotary Club meeting, across the state. Now, of course, such gatherings have been postponed. The silver lining has been how understanding everyone has been as we quickly transitioned to campaigning from home in sweatpants. We have moved a number of our in-person campaign events online, and organizations have been wonderful about affording judicial candidates opportunities to meet with their members through platforms like Zoom.

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. As Chief Justice [Cheri] Beasley eloquently stated in her recent comments following the death of George Floyd, “Too many people believe that there are two kinds of justice. They believe it because that is their lived experience — they have seen and felt the difference in their own lives. The data also overwhelmingly bears out the truth of those lived experiences. In our courts, African-Americans are more harshly treated, more severely punished, and more likely to be presumed guilty.”

We know the problem. How do we set about addressing it?

First, and perhaps most importantly, it is essential to have the right mindset. I firmly believe we need to be willing to ask hard questions of ourselves, of others, and about the criminal justice system. Chief Justice Beasley has served as a wonderful model in how to go about forthrightly considering where we have fallen short. The capacity and willingness to do so is one of the reasons that I am most proud of being an attorney. And we need to be honest and not defensive in responding to those hard questions.

From the standpoint of taking concrete steps to address systemic racism, I will highlight broader steps we should consider undertaking as a court system and steps I already take to ensure I play my role in ensuring equal access to justice for all North Carolinians under the law.

Broadly, we should consider implicit bias training for members of the judiciary. Everyone labors under the weight of their biases. Going through implicit bias training before taking the bench helped me to better understand and grapple with the shortcuts we are susceptible to taking, which can stand in the way of realizing justice. The Court of Appeals has previously offered implicit bias training, which members of our Court found very helpful and eye-opening. I support this becoming a regular offering across our court system.

On a more personal level, I value diversity and equity in my chambers. That is why I have emphasized hiring clerks, interns, and externs of color. I have also emphasized hiring women, individuals who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and people with different religious beliefs. I want to work with attorneys who will challenge me and bring new perspectives to bear because they have and will continue to make me a better judge.

By themselves, none of these efforts will eradicate the racial prejudice that has plagued our society for centuries. But through sustained effort we can make progress on these issues.

How do you define injustice?

Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “[i]n recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” This quote is central to my understanding of injustice. At bottom, injustice springs from denying someone else the rights and opportunities that you would expect for yourself. Whenever you look down at someone or treat a person inequitably because of their race, sex, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or gender identity, you deny them something of their humanity and dignity. The same is true when you acquiesce in someone being demeaned or treated unfairly. How does this inform my work at the Court of Appeals? It means I keep in mind the real human stakes of the decisions I make and focus intently on ensuring these decisions do not turn on the relative power or influence of those appearing before me.

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

Our Supreme Court has put the matter this way: “Although there is a strong presumption that acts of the General Assembly are constitutional, it is nevertheless the duty of this Court, in some instances, to declare such acts unconstitutional.” Given that precedent is the North Star at the Court of Appeals, I begin any review of legislative action with this guidance in mind.

I interpret this precedent to mean that, in reviewing any legislative enactment, my starting point is that the law in question is constitutional. To move from this starting point requires a very persuasive argument that doing so is necessary.

At the same time, however, this precedent also signals that judges should not blindly defer to actions of the legislature. We must be mindful of the limited role judges play in our system of government while also recognizing that, for more than 200 years, that role has included, on occasion, invalidating legislative actions that transgress the state or federal constitution or otherwise outstrip the legislature’s authority.

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

First, as noted above, we should consider implicit bias training for members of the judiciary. Relatedly, Governor Cooper has taken steps to ensure our judiciary reflects the demographics of North Carolina and the diversity of experience of North Carolinians; I hope and trust these efforts will continue. And, to ensure that our appellate courts themselves operate equitably, we are now reviewing steps we can take to eradicate sexual harassment in the judicial workplace; these efforts are both long-overdue and welcome.

Beyond these efforts to make our court system more equitable and inclusive, former Chief Justice Mark Martin and current Chief Justice Beasley have rightly emphasized access to justice in their respective tenures leading the judicial branch of government.

One central component of both of their efforts has been advocating to modernize the criminal justice system. This includes providing for specialized treatment courts, diversion programs for youthful offenders, and adequate funding for indigent defense programs.

Another tentpole of their efforts has been bringing court technology into the 21st century. These efforts have only taken on greater importance with the pandemic making it more difficult to operate courthouses safely. Investing in technology will make it safer and easier for North Carolinians to file court documents, access our dockets and calendars, and potentially even resolve some matters through video-conferencing or other remote appearance means.

The common thread connecting each of these changes is that, if implemented, they will bring us closer to realizing our state constitutional mandate that “right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial or delay.”

*****

Name: Jefferson Griffin

Party affiliation: Republican

Website: www.jeffersongriffin.com

*Note: Judge Griffin, a North Carolina Army National Guard JAG Officer, was on active military duty at the time this questionnaire was distributed and was unable to respond. He did however respond to a similar questionnaire in 2018 when he ran unsuccessfully for another Court of Appeals seat. We have reproduced the answers he provided at that time below.

What characteristics do you believe make a good judge, and why should North Carolinians vote for you?

North Carolinians should vote for me because I am the most qualified candidate for the job. I preside over civil and criminal courtrooms as a District Court Judge, I serve as an officer in the North Carolina Army National Guard – Judge Advocate General Corps, I worked as a prosecutor for five years in the Wake County District Attorney’s office, and I began my legal career in private practice representing defendants in criminal and civil cases. I have proven that I have the experience and the judicial temperament necessary to serve on the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

I believe a good judge honors the rule of law, protects our Constitution, provides access to justice, promotes civic education, and maintains impartiality in our courts.

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

I will continue to balance being an independent judge and an elected official just as I have done as an elected District Court Judge in Wake County.

Who is a judge responsible to, or what is their ultimate authority, and how do you view the appropriate balance of power amongst the governmental branches?

The Constitution is a judge’s ultimate authority. The Constitution dictates the appropriate balance of power amongst the governmental branches.

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

Creating formal mentorship opportunities for new attorneys and providing more practical training opportunities for young lawyers could benefit the judicial system. Changes that strengthen the public’s confidence in the judicial system are always necessary. The confidence of our citizens in the judicial system is essential to our democracy.

How do you define injustice?

Injustice occurs when all are not treated equally under the law.

How will you work to ensure equal access to justice for all?

I will continue to serve Wake County, the state of North Carolina, and the United States of America just as I do in my current jobs. Whether in the courtroom or in the field, I never forget the oaths I swore to protect and defend the Constitution. The Constitution belongs to all of us.