Carolina Democracy

Judicial Mashup - NC Supreme Court Edition

October 18, 2022 JD Wooten Episode 41
Carolina Democracy
Judicial Mashup - NC Supreme Court Edition
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, we’ve got a special "mashup" episode featuring Justice Sam J. Ervin IV and Judge Lucy Inman, both candidates for the North Carolina Supreme Court. We've taken excerpts from their full interviews and merged them into a candidate forum style episode so you can share a single episode with all your friends to spread the messages of these great candidates for North Carolina's highest court.

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Justice Ervin: It's up to the voters what kind of court system we want to have? And my concern is that we are at a crossroads in this state in terms of what kind of court system do we want? And I think there is a real risk that our courts may go in a direction that appears more political on face. 

Judge Inman: I am running for the Supreme Court to continue my service and to protect the integrity of that Court. And I cannot promise how I will decide any case, but I can promise that I will decide every case impartially, honestly, and transparently. 

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JD Wooten: Hey everyone, welcome back to Carolina Democracy. I’m JD Wooten, and today we’re doing something a little different. If you’ve followed along with every episode, at least since last summer, you’ve heard our past interviews with Justice Sam Ervin and Judge Lucy Inman, both running for the North Carolina Supreme Court. If you haven’t heard their full episodes, I highly recommend it. Judge Inman’s full interview aired in the episode titled “Our First Judicial Candidate” on June 6th, and Justice Ervin’s full interview aired on September 26th under the episode title “Fair & Impartial Courts (aka We Got Justice Ervin).” What can I say, I guess I wasn’t feeling particularly creative those days.

What I wanted to do today is put together a single episode with excerpts from both candidates that gets right to it. Think of it as almost a candidate forum format, although the interviews were actually conducted on different days. I wasn’t sure this would work back when I was planning out episodes, but just in case, I kept the interview outlines for both fairly similar, and it turns out, it mostly works. I re-recorded all of my parts to better set up their comments and answers, as well as help smooth the transitions back and forth between them. However, the actual questions you hear are essentially the same questions I asked during the interviews, and their responses are of course their original responses from the full interviews.

We’re also skipping the usual recap of what happened this past week. There was plenty, but it’ll still be there for the next episode. My thinking is simple – if you’re listening to this podcast regularly, little I say is going to change who you vote for at this point. And hopefully, it won’t change the fact that you’re going to vote. So, I wanted to create an episode that you can easily share with someone not sure about the judicial candidates and that skips over all the other stuff they may or may not appreciate. Political podcasts and my personal thoughts on the latest news impacting democracy in North Carolina aren’t for everyone, I get that. But these candidates’ messages are for everyone, so please, if you know anyone who wants to hear more about, or especially from, these candidates, share this episode with them.

And, here’s a little background for each candidate before we jump to the interviews. Justice Sam J. Ervin IV of the North Carolina Supreme Court is running for re-election to his seat this year. Justice Ervin comes from a long line of distinguished attorneys and public servants, and yes, if you’re think I know the name Sam Ervin, but I thought it was from my history books, you’re not wrong. Justice Ervin is the grandson of U.S. Senator Sam Ervin who chaired the Watergate hearings, and the son of former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin. He had a great uncle in the U.S. House, his brother is also a judge, his mother was an elected member of the local school board when he was growing up, and I’m sure there are others in the family. Needless to say, not only is Justice Ervin imminently qualified in his own right, but there aren’t a lot of people who can say public service is in their blood more than Justice Ervin. Justice Ervin served on the North Carolina Utilities Commission from 1999-2008, was elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008, and was then elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2014. Supreme Court justices serve 8-year terms, so he’s up for re-election this year.

We also have Judge Lucy Inman of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Judge Inman is a candidate for the North Carolina Supreme Court this year to fill the vacancy that will come with the retirement of Justice Robin Hudson at the end of the year. Judge Inman actually started her career in journalism, even covering courtroom proceedings, and that eventually led her to law school, so she brought a unique perspective to the law from the outset of her career. Right after law school, she clerked for then North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Exum, so she’s been intimately familiar with what goes on behind the scenes in our state courts since she started practicing law. She spent many years in private practice, just like Justice Ervin, before transitioning to public service. She got her start on the bench as a trial court judge in the North Carolina Superior Court in 2010, and then in 2014 she was elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Like Justice Ervin, Judge Inman is imminently qualified to serve as a justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Now before we hear from the candidates, here are a few quick reminders for November election deadlines. If you want to vote by mail, the online absentee ballot portal is open and ballots have already started going out. One-stop early voting begins on October 20th and you can do same day registration and vote during one-stop early voting. November 1st is the deadline to request a mail-in ballot, but please don’t wait that long. In person early voting ends at 3pm on Saturday, November 5th, and election day is Tuesday, November 8th.

And finally, please share this episode with a friend, or all your friends, and anyone who might want to learn more about two great candidates for the North Carolina Supreme Court. Now let’s here from the candidates.

[music transition]

JD Wooten: With us today are Justice Sam J. Ervin IV and Judge Lucy Inman, both running for seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court this year. Let's start with Justice Ervin. Welcome, Your Honor. 

Justice Ervin: Well, thanks for having me, JD. I appreciate you sitting down and talking with me for a few minutes.

JD Wooten: Absolutely. So let's start in the same place I do with all my first time guests. What's your earliest memory of politics or being aware of politics?

Justice Ervin: My earliest memory of it, I think, is when my father ran for the legislature in 1964. That was back before you had the one person, one vote decisions, and he ran in a single county district in Burke County and won. And I remember, I think it was '64, it might have been '66 when he ran for reelection, going uptown in Morganton to the place that the returns came in at that time and then stopping by the church that a friend of ours was the pastor at on the way home after he had decided that he was had won. But that's my first real recollection of any kind of political involvement was watching my dad get elected or reelected to the state legislature in either '64 or '66. 

JD Wooten: We've had several guests mention that their earliest memory involved going to the polls with a parent, but you're the first person to mention that parent was also on the ballot. 

Justice Ervin: We have something of the history of that in my family, I'm afraid. 

JD Wooten: Well, that's a bit of an understatement, but before we talk about the many elected officials in your family, you also hail from a long line of distinguished attorneys. When did you decide that you wanted to follow in that family tradition and go to law school 

Justice Ervin: Well, I don't know exactly when I decided to. My father was both a practicing attorney and then later a Superior Court Judge during my childhood. And I remember going to court with him in the summers just to watch and see what happens. And so I knew what both the upside and the downside of practicing law looked like. I also remember people calling in the middle of the night, needing advice, things like that, or later officers coming by to have search warrants signed. And so I knew something about the stresses that were involved in it. I went to college thinking that certainly that was one of the options that I had for a professional career. My parents were very concerned that I not just go to law school because everybody in the family had gone to law school, so I thought about a number of different alternatives before deciding that I thought I would be happiest and could be of, of best use to my, you know, fellow citizens if I stuck with the family business, rather than branching off into a couple of the other things that I had thought about at one point. 

JD Wooten: Okay, now turning to our other esteemed guest, we have Judge Lucy Inman of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Judge Inman is running to fill the upcoming vacancy on the North Carolina Supreme Court when Justice Robin Hudson retires at the end of this year. Welcome Judge Inman

Judge Inman: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate being with you.

JD Wooten: You bet. Same first question as Justice Ervin, what's your earliest memory of politics or being aware of politics? 

Judge Inman: Well my father was a newspaper reporter when I was very young and he covered a lot of politics. A lot of campaigns, but also political controversies. And I do remember one of the earliest candidates whose name I knew was Nick Galifianakis, and his name was so long they had to put it on two different buttons. The first campaign I was ever involved in was during law school. I worked on Harvey Gantt's Senate campaign. And that would have been in the late eighties, early 1990. But before I went to law school, I worked as a newspaper reporter myself so I really tried to stay apolitical. 

JD Wooten: So your professional career actually started off in journalism before turning the law. What led you to start off in journal?

Judge Inman: So I father was a newspaper reporter and I certainly grew up placing great value in newspapers and journalism, but I really didn't ever say to my parents, you know, I want to be a journalist. I went to undergraduate school at NC State. I got a degree in English, and one of my professors there said to me, and he meant it as a compliment, he said, you know, Lucy, you would be a really great journalist because you're just insecure enough that you have to ask a lot of questions. You're just uncertain enough of things that you don't accept them at face value, and you have to ask a lot of questions. And so I said well, I think I'll take that as a compliment and maybe I'll do that. And in the summers during college, I worked as an intern at a couple of small newspapers. And then at then the Raleigh Times, which was an afternoon newspaper in my last year of school, I then was hired to work there full-time after I graduated from college. 

JD Wooten: And after several years as a reporter, you decided you wanted to go to law school. What led to that decision? 

Judge Inman: Well, really my work as a newspaper reporter led to that. At the newspaper, I like many, many, you know, brand new newspaper reporters. You know, first worked on general assignment matters on the weekends and going to obscure festivals and various other assignments often on the weekends when the more experienced staff folks had off. But then I covered crimes and emergencies, and that was really, really fascinating because in the midst of any kind of traumatic event, you learn about people. Their guard is down, and you really find out some people have strengths they never knew they had. And of course we do also find in criminal cases, some weaknesses that people have that you never thought they had. And eventually I was assigned to cover court proceedings, which was a little bit like crimes in emergencies, except it was broader because it included civil disputes. And instead of the urgent sort of who, what, where, when we've got to get this down quick, the dust had settled and the questions were equally "what's the consequence of what happened?" And what do we, as a government, what do we as a society, do to respond to what's happened? And covering the courts it was just tailor made for journalism. And as you know, some of the best trial lawyers are really, really great storytellers. I don't mean making up stories. I mean setting the stage and laying out the facts in a way that are compelling. And I just love that. And after a couple of years of doing that, I decided I'd like to participate in that system and not continue to just write about it. 

JD Wooten: Okay. Back to Justice Ervin. Your Honor, after law school, you were in private practice handling a wide variety of civil, criminal, and administrative matters. Any particular cases or experiences in private practice still shape your thinking on law today?

Justice Ervin: Well, any, you know, a number of things, you know, occur to you when you are, when you are representing people in a small town in private practice. One of them is just the importance of the individual client. I mean, you are in a practice like that typically representing distinct individuals. They are there not most of the time cause they want to be, but rather cause they have to be. And so you learn to deal with the, the real problems that people have and to see the effects that the, what the court system does can have on their lives. And so I represented people, was mostly a courtroom lawyer, although I did some office type work too, but you, you learn to deal with people in some of the most stressful situations in their lives. And the best thing you can do sometime is just to be there and listen. And I think I learned the importance of listening to people, particularly when they have problems and have nowhere else to turn. The sheer experience of dealing with different varieties of people with different kinds of problems will tell you a lot about the human condition and the lives that many of our fellow North Carolinians live. And so I learned a lot about many different parts of our society from representing people from many different parts of that society. But that's really what I learned from it, as much as anything, is the importance of paying attention to what people were saying, trying to deal with the problems that they have, and recognizing each person's individuality.

JD Wooten: And Judge Inman, as I understand it, your first job out of law school was to serve as a clerk for then North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Exim. Could you explain for our listeners what it means to have clerked for Justice Exum?

Judge Inman: My role as a clerk in Justice Exum's chambers, not that different from the role of the clerks in my own chambers now, was to read the briefs that the parties have filed, compare what the appellant and the appellee are arguing, look to see where there's disagreement, and of course there is some cause there's an appeal, and then focus in the record on what in the record has any bearing on what the parties are disputing on appeal. The reason that we have to look at the record carefully is because in any case with storytelling, one side can paint a picture that's very different than the other side would paint. We look and see what the record shows and see if counsel is representing facts accurately. And clerks do legal research and look at all the sources of authority for a legal opinion. And then what I did for Justice Exum and what my clerks do for me is write a bench memo, and that is for the judge or justice to review as that judge or justice is deciding what he or she things about the case, what that judge or justice's vote is going to be. Then it would come back to the clerk often with the assignment to let's take your memo and start to transform that into the draft of an opinion. 

JD Wooten: After clerking for Justice Exum, you spent nearly two decades in civil litigation representing a wide range of clients during that time, from small business owners to large companies, and even survivors of negligence, fraud, and sexual abuse. Same question as I asked Justice Ervin, do any particular cases or experiences in private practice still shape your thinking on law today?

Judge Inman: Well, you know, having represented clients, and I will say I was honored to represent all of my clients. I consider at least for my personality, the role of a judge is a lot less stressful than the role of an attorney. And that is because attorneys need to move mountains on behalf of a client who really needs a result. And the whole reason that we have a legal system and we have lawyers rather than letting people fight in the street about matters is so that we have a justice system that is a little bit detached from the heat of whatever the issue is. But for your client, I'm sure you have clients like this. They respect you as a lawyer, but they just, they want a resolve. They need a result. And to me, that is that is a great, great challenge for a lawyer to balance the client's needs with the lawyers’ duties to be candid with the tribunal, to say to your clients sometimes I know this seems really unfair, but I've researched the law thoroughly, and we're not going to be able to prevail. You know about the stress that I'm talking about. The way that informs my work as a judge is that I know, even though I don't see witnesses or parties, I'm really reviewing records, I know that every single case affects a real person. So I think just remembering the various clients I've represented. And also you know, I represented individuals who didn't understand how the legal process worked, it really, really helped for them to understand why a case turned out the way it did. And so when I'm writing opinions, I make it a very high priority to explain the Court's reasoning so that the parties and the lawyers and other courts and the public can understand how the court reached that decision. 

JD Wooten: Justice Ervin, after a couple decades of private practice, you decided to run for the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008. What led you deciding to run for the Court of appeals that year? 

Justice Ervin: Well, that particular one was kind of a spur of the moment decision. I always considered myself something of a generalist in the legal field. And that's the kind of practice I'd had when I was in private practice and thought that, you know, I had some abilities in that area. Wanted to be an appellate court judge. I'd watched my father do it and thought that was something that I would enjoy doing and that I had the background to do. And as you know, judges in this state are elected. I had made some effort to get appointed a couple of times before without success. And finally decided that I, the best way for me to get there was to do something that I had long resisted doing, which was filing for office myself. I remember filing like a day or so before the end of the filing period and then driving to, I think it was Salisbury to go conduct a utility hearing, thinking to myself, what have you just done? But I wound up being involved, starting from filing in February, wound up with a statewide primary in May, and then a general election in November. And so I spent the first of several years, I've spent trying to do two full-time jobs at the same time being on the Utilities Commission and being a political candidate and was fortunate enough to persuade the voters to entrust me with being on the Court of Appeals. 

JD Wooten: And Judge Inman, your for role in the judiciary came around that same time when you were appointed to fill a vacancy as a Special Superior Court Judge beginning in 2010. How did that come to be?

Judge Inman: Well I probably had in the back of my mind ever since I clerked for Chief Justice Exum that it would be an amazing job to work as a judge someday, but I really put it ut of my mind. I thought I was going to practice law in North Carolina for my entire career, but when I was clerking for Chief Justice Exum, I met and fell in love with a newspaper reporter who was going to California to go to graduate school. And we moved to Los Angeles and I practice civil litigation there for eight years. We moved back to North Carolina when we had a two-year-old and our second child was on the way, and I completely changed my practice. I had been practicing commercial litigation and media law in California, and we came back here, I practiced all plaintiff's litigation representing victims or family members of victims of preventable medical errors, catastrophic events like car crashes, and also sexual abuse and fraud. And when my older child was not four years old, I think, he was frequently in my office. He loved to draw and he drew a picture of a creature that had spikes on every surface of its body. I mean, I think like the eyelashes were spikes, and the tail was spikes. And I said, Will, what do you call that creature? And he said, a litigator. And it was a reminder to me that litigators do battle. You know, we do battle in the courtroom. We want to have, and I always strive to have, a professional relationship with our adversaries, but it is a lot of arguing. And I remembered around about that time you know, how wonderful it was working at an appellate court where our job was not to move a mountain, but to get it right. And I kept on practicing. Someone who I went to law school with, and still very good friends with today, at that time had been in the state legislature. Her name is Deborah Ross, and she suggested when a vacancy came up in a local superior court seat that I should seek appointment to that seat or to run for election for that seat. And I did seek appointment to that seat. And it was a few years before Governor Perdue appointed me to the Superior Court bench. And I'll tell you, there's nothing like wanting to be a judge to make you a better lawyer. 

JD Wooten: And in 2014, you were elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. As someone who served as both a trial court judge and as an appellate court judge, could you briefly describe the difference for our listeners?

Judge Inman: Sure. So the trial judge's role is probably what most people who've ever watched a television show or a movie about the justice system can relate to. The trial judge really has a front row seat to the evidence and the arguments and is making rulings on whether evidence is admissible and making sure that the evidence is presented in a way that the jury can understand it and doing everything he or she can do to make sure that each side feels like they were treated fairly. At the appellate level, we sit in groups. At the Court of Appeals, there are 15 judges and we sit in panels of three. At the Supreme Court, there are seven justices and they hear cases together. We receive a record to read and we receive briefs to read, and we have much, much more time to review the issues at hand.

JD Wooten: Justice Ervin, after several years of the Court of Appeals, you were elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2014. Judge Inman has described the broad differences between trial court judges and appellate court judges in our state. But could you explain the differences in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court?

Justice Ervin: The job of the Court of Appeals is to make sure that the existing law is applied uniformly statewide. So that if a legal matter is heard in Cherokee County on the one end of the state or Dare County on the other end of the state, the same rules are applied in essentially the same way in both of those trials. The Court of Appeals is bound by its own decisions. It can't say, oh, our predecessors got this wrong and we're gonna do something different. It's also bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court on the other hand is there to deal with what I think of as the most difficult legal cases in the court system. If we do our job right, and if the statutes that govern what kind of cases come to us automatically function as they're supposed to, we should wind up with the most difficult legal questions in the state, cases in which their Court of Appeals panels that disagree. Cases that the legal issue that's before us hasn't been heard before. Cases that involve issues of substantial public importance, that kind of thing. And so the average judge at the Court of Appeals will write about a hundred opinions a year and each panel will decide somewhere between three and 400. Our court, if you're looking only at fully briefed in argued cases, will hear around a hundred. But in those cases, each take much more work and are much more difficult legally to figure out what to do with than the average case at the Court of Appeals. That is not to say that the average case at the Court of Appeals is not important. It is. It's very important. And most parties, the road ends at the Court of Appeals. It's important that they do their job well. But the Supreme Court is there to deal with the issues that need resolution to provide clarity to the law and to make sure that the lower courts function as they're supposed to. And so that's, that's, that's a lot of generalities, but that's in essence, what I think of is the difference between the two courts.

JD Wooten: For this next topic, let's go with Justice Ervin first. In all of your previous campaigns, judicial races were nonpartisan; however, now judicial races are partisan. How has that impacted the way you campaign for reelection, if at all?

Justice Ervin: You know, I've run three times before. I've ruined twice for the Supreme Court before. In 2012, I was unsuccessful. In 2014, as you pointed out was successful. All three of those, those two raises plus to raise my race for the Court of Appeals were nonpartisan. The General Assembly gets to decide what the rules are within constitutional limits for the elections in the state. And they decided a number of years ago that we needed to move back to partisan elections. And so I'm, for the first time in my career as a political candidate, the nominee of a political party. And it's not a change I would've made if I had had the power to do anything about it. It is not entirely comfortable for me to be on a partisan ticket, because I have spent most of my career trying to explain to people that judges should not have partisan agendas and that you should look at judicial office differently than you look at legislative or executive branch offices. Those folks, those are both proactive branches of government. Their job is to diagnose the problems that we see in society, see if they can come up with a solution that would involve governmental action, and see if you can implement that solution. Whereas we are reactive in nature. We sit back and hear are the cases that come to us that are brought to us by other people. And their job is to try to do what is best in the view of the office holders as a matter of public policy. Our job is to try to figure out what the law is and how does it apply to this set of facts? It's perfectly appropriate to have partisan elections, at least in my view, for the legislature and for executive branch offices, because those are explicitly public policy-oriented branches of government. The, the courts are not supposed to be that. And I've tried very hard to do what I think I'm supposed to in deciding cases. And so as I wind up as a candidate for reelection this year explaining why I don't think that the courts ought to be a partisan political institution, that instead, I mean, when I, when I start working on a case, I get a legal pad out and I draw a line down the middle and I start taking notes on both sides of the page to try to balance out. So it starts out with a blank slate and then I'm looking for, are the facts? What are the law? Not what I think the law ought to be, but what, what it is in fact. And that's a very big difference. And I'm not at all sure that it lends itself to partisan elections. I would not have gone to partisan elections if it was up to me, but it's not up to me. And so my only choice at this point is either to throw in the towel and say I'm not going participate or to participate in the system because I think it's important that people speak out for what they think the courts ought to be. And that's what I'm trying to do. My concern is what signal does it send to the citizens of the state to say that you should look at judicial candidates as if they were running on a partisan ticket, just like everybody else. The courts have always tried to say, we are not making partisan decisions. But when you have partisan elections, you are telling the voters these are the candidates of this party, these are the candidates of this party, with a strong suggestion that you ought to look at candidates because of their party affiliation. And that seems to me to send an erroneous signal to the voters as to what courts actually do. I think it is going to impair public confidence in the courts over the long term, and I think that's unfortunate.

JD Wooten: Judge Inman, you've also been on the bench long enough to see a return to partisan judicial elections. From your perspective, have you seen a change over the years as judicial races have become more partisan? 

Judge Inman: I've definitely seen a change, and not for the better, in my view. I was elected statewide in 2014 in a non-partisan race. And just approaching that race, I had never run for dog catcher before. And I'm a lifelong Democrat, but I didn't believe, and I still don't believe, partisan politics has any place in the courtroom. So some of the first people I approached when I ran my first campaign were Republicans, and Independents, and folks who I knew did not share my political background. I believe that non-partisan races drive candidates toward the middle. They remind candidates that you are seeking a job where you will have a lot of authority over people of all political stripes. And that the best thing you can say for yourself is that you will approach every case fairly and impartially and consider the facts, and the law, and nothing else. When I joined the Court of Appeals, I worked with several judges who were senior to me, not of my political party, who were just great mentors to me. And in 99% of the cases that we decide, there's not a partisan political difference. Everybody wants people to be safe. You know, everybody thinks that violent crime is terrible. Everybody thinks that cheating someone is wrong. And when these races were made partisan in 2016, our state and our nation also became so much more politically polarized. But when I ran in 2014, I didn't run into that polarization. I really did not. And after the judicial races were made partisan, I think that political voters, and political activists, and political donors began to expect that judicial candidates that were aligned with their party should toe the party line for them. And it's a challenge to say to someone who you want to support your campaign, I can't promise you what you're hoping for. That just creates more of a challenge. And after I was elected in 2014, I really didn't want to be very involved in politics because I wanted everyone to trust me to be fair and impartial. But there has been a trend in the last few years of some judges and justices who the minute they are sworn in, send a letter to the Judicial Standards Commission and announce that they will be a candidate in eight years. And they do that because of the provisions in the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct, there are things that a judge who's a candidate can do that a judge who's not a candidate cannot do. 

JD Wooten: For This next topic, let me first caveat that in candidate interviews I would normally ask about a campaign platform at this point. However, for good reason, judicial candidates cannot comment on issues or cases that might come before them, so talking about a platform in the traditional sense is almost impossible. However, judicial candidates can talk more broadly about how they think through cases and their guiding principles in arriving at legal conclusions. Here's what Justice Ervin had to say about his judicial philosophy. 

Justice Ervin: The law of North Carolina says how judges are supposed to look at legal issues. If you go to a law school, you can hear professors and others talk about various overarching kinds of legal theories that are available for you to use if you want to. But it's always seemed to me that what we are doing in essence is taking a particular legal principle, whether it's a statutory provision, whether it's a constitutional provision, and try to figure out how that principle applies to a specific set of facts. And so what that usually requires you to do at some point is to say, what does this mean? And the North Carolina Courts have always been pretty clear about how you go about doing that. What you do is you, first of all as somebody once said, when all else fails, read the statute or read the constitution and you look at the language of the provision that you're talking about and ask yourself the question, is this clear and unambiguous? If the answer to that question is yes, your work is it an end. All you do is just apply that statute as it is written, or that constitutional provision as it is written, to the facts of the case. But if you've got words that you're not sure what they mean, that are subject to more than one interpretation, there are a number of things you are supposed to do in order to try to figure out what those words mean as applied to a particular set of facts. First is look at them in context. Secondly, look at what are other provisions of the document that you're trying to construe that may bear some relation to this provision have to say. A third thing that's very important is you are rarely writing on a legal blank slate. And so it's likely that the constitutional provision or the statute or common law principle that you're looking at has been the subject to prior judicial decisions. So you try to make your decision consistent with decisions made by courts looking at that provision in the past. You look at the purpose for which that provision was adopted, what was the evil that was intended to be addressed? And you can look certainly at the history of the provision, what were the circumstances that led to its enactment? You look at all of those things and your job is not to try to figure out what you would have written had you written it yourself, but rather what did the people that wrote it mean? And so that is the process that's set out in North Carolina law. It is not an academic theory. And that's the philosophy that I use and have used ever since I first started trying to make judicial or quasi judicial decisions almost quarter century ago.

JD Wooten: Now for Judge Inman reflecting on the guiding principles she relies on as she works through the legal issues that come before her.

Judge Inman: So, guiding principles I really liked that phrase guiding principles. As part of judicial philosophy, you know, there are some labels for judicial philosophy. You'll hear some judges say I'm an originalist, I'm a strict constructionist, I'm a textualist. And I see those labels as really part of tools in a toolkit and the guiding principles are those tools. One guiding principle is that if a document is clear on its face, if a word, if a sentence, is clear on its face as to its meaning, then we don't look at any other evidence. We don't look at any other analysis to ask what that document means, if it's clear on its face. The trouble is of course that what might look clear on its face to me might not look clear on its face to you. And we then have many other principles about what do you do if a document isn't clear and what do you look at? You look at grammar. Commas are really, really important in some document interpretation. And the documents that we are interpreting can be a contract, can be a settlement agreement, can be a search warrant, a statute, or the United States Constitution, or the North Carolina Constitution. All of the same principles are available to interpret all of those different documents. Another guiding principle to me is the Latin stare decisis, which means let the decision stand. And this is the principle of following precedent and the reason that that courts follow precedent, and should generally follow precedent, in my view, is that each judge or justice is in a position for a Court. The position is part of the institution of the Court and that judge's personal views, beliefs, preferences should not control what that institution does. We are a nation of laws, not a nation of judges. And the value of precedent, beyond the integrity of the institution, is for everyone who's affected by the Court's decisions to be able to know what the rules are and know that the rules are not going to change dramatically without a very, very good reason. If you are a person going around about your business and you want to know what you are and aren't allowed to do in the criminal law you would not like to find out one day that walking on a certain part of your sidewalk is a crime when you had no idea. If you are a business that's thinking about moving to North Carolina, and you're making plans and you're making investments, you certainly would not like to find after you made this huge commitment and this investment that the law had changed. And so that consistency I think is very valuable in precedent. There's also, however, the awareness of the Court of what is happening and what are the practical matters. When the framers wrote the United States Constitution, when the framers of the North Carolina Constitution wrote it, we didn't have cell phones. We didn't have drone technology. And so there are a lot of developments in our culture that you really can't look back at a document that was written hundreds of years ago and say, clearly, that's what this document says about that. So it's a balance. 

JD Wooten: And finally, here are some closing thoughts from Justice Ervin and Judge Inman. 

Justice Ervin: We elect judges because the State Constitution requires it. And if you look at why that approach was adopted in the State Constitution's drafting, it is intended to give the voters an opportunity to ensure that the Courts are not beholden to any of the other branches of government. The Courts are an independent, equally important branch of government separately selected by the voters. It's up to the voters what kind of court system we want to have? And my concern is that we are at a crossroads in this state in terms of what kind of court system do we want? You know, I talked a little bit about the return to partisan elections. We didn't talk about it, but we're also seeing large sums of money spending these races. We're seeing increasingly politicized news coverage of the Courts. We're seeing more and more interest on the part of partisan actors in judicial elections. And I think there is a real risk that our Courts may go in a direction that that appears more political on face. We can do that, or we can stick with a court system that tries to do what I've attempted to describe in some of my earlier answers. THat is not involved in an attempt to implement up some kind of political agenda, that looks at each case individually, that isn't afraid to call cases like it sees them. That choice is always one ultimately for the voters. And I think that this year in particular, given various things that we've seen in our society, it's more important than ever that we have a court system that treats everybody as equal under the law, that nobody is above the law, that gives everybody a fair hearing, and at the end of the day makes decisions that are based on the dispassionate, traditional look at how you interpret legal materials. That's the choice that the voters have. And I want to emphasize as strongly as I can, that that is the voter's choice. And it's up to the voters, what choice they make.

Judge Inman: I am so privileged to serve in the job that I'm serving now on the Court of Appeals. I was so privileged to serve as a trial court judge. I really see this work as my calling and I don't take for granted any single day, how fortunate I am to do this work. And I don't take lightly the trust and confidence that people must place in their judges. I do believe that our Courts, and especially our appellate courts, are really under great threat from partisan politics. And I am running for the Supreme Court to continue my service and to protect the integrity of that Court. And I cannot promise how I will decide any case, but I can promise that I will leave politics at the courthouse steps and I will decide every case impartially, honestly, and transparently. 

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JD Wooten: Thanks again to Justice Ervin and Judge Inman for joining us for interviews, and to everyone for listening. Links are in the show notes to learn more about Justice Ervin and Judge Inman. Reminder, the Carolina Democracy Podcast is not affiliated with or authorized by any candidate, candidate’s committee, or other political committee or organization, and does not endorse any candidates. If you have questions or comments, send me an email at And again, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and share this episode with a friend. Together, we can achieve a better North Carolina for everyone!

Closing Notes