Carolina Democracy

Fighting for the Courts: "I've never stopped, let's go!"

May 13, 2024 JD Wooten Season 3 Episode 18
Fighting for the Courts: "I've never stopped, let's go!"
Carolina Democracy
More Info
Carolina Democracy
Fighting for the Courts: "I've never stopped, let's go!"
May 13, 2024 Season 3 Episode 18
JD Wooten

Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, we're joined by Judge Carolyn Thompson who is running to hold on to her seat on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. We also kick off with the latest on the Voter ID trial and a tough few weeks for public education in North Carolina.

Learn More About Judge Thompson:

Contact Us:

Follow Us:

Support the Show.

Carolina Democracy +
Join us in the fight to promote democracy in North Carolina!
Starting at $3/month
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome back to Carolina Democracy! Today, we're joined by Judge Carolyn Thompson who is running to hold on to her seat on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. We also kick off with the latest on the Voter ID trial and a tough few weeks for public education in North Carolina.

Learn More About Judge Thompson:

Contact Us:

Follow Us:

Support the Show.

Carolyn Thompson: I was nerved sitting in the mansion and being interviewed. And when he said to me will you take up this fight and fight for the Court of Appeals? I said, Governor, I've never stopped, let's go!

[music transition]

JD Wooten: Welcome back to Carolina Democracy. I’m JD Wooten, and this week we’re joined by Judge Carolyn Thompson of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. But first, I’m recording this intro on Mother’s Day, so to my mom and all the moms out there listening, I hope you had a wonderful Mother’s Day! Now, before we hear from Judge Thompson, let’s catch up on a few things from the last couple of weeks related to democracy in North Carolina.

First, the trial is underway in the federal case challenging the 2018 Voter ID law. The question at trial is basically over whether the law unconstitutionally discriminates certain minority groups, namely Black and Latino voters. You may remember that a prior attempt of the General Assembly to institute a voter ID law was struck down because it was found to target African Americans with near surgical precision. In that case, it came out during trial that members of the legislature and their staff actually asked for data on which types of photo IDs African Americans were most likely to have, then wrote the law around that information to figure out which kind of photo IDs to not count. It was pretty bad, to say the least. Well, in November 2018, just after the GOP lost the supermajority but before the new members could take office, the lame duck General Assembly came back to session to pass the current law knowing that the Governor would veto it, so they had to get it done before they lost the votes to override the veto.

This new law allows more types of photo IDs to be used, and to my knowledge there isn’t any evidence of obvious racial discrimination like the last time, but keep in mind a lot of these legislators are the same ones who were at this before and we already know what their intent was. However, unfortunately the law does not allow us to apply logic in quite that way in the Court, so the Court cannot assume any racially discriminatory intent in this law simply because it’s a new version of another law that was racially discriminatory and was passed by an almost identical group of people.

Now, in principle, I agree that a new legislature should be given a fresh start and not assumed to act with any particular intent of a past legislature if for no other reason than the people in the legislature change as do their beliefs and opinions. Heck, just last year, essentially the very same people who blocked Medicaid Expansion for over a decade suddenly changed it up and started reading from the Democratic talking points and ultimately passed expansion. That said, in this particular case, pretending that there was no racial motivation behind the new law is a little like sticking your head in the sand, or saying the only way to fix centuries of discrimination is to pretend it doesn’t exist and declare the world race blind. It’s just not reality and it ignores common sense.

All that said, the more pressing problem with this law is not a legal one, but a practical or policy one. Unfortunately, Courts are not well positioned to address this, but the fundamental problem with this law is that it’s designed to address a phantom problem—rampant voter fraud—while creating another very real problem—disenfranchising thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people from their constitutional right to vote even just in this past primary election alone. We know, for example, that 473 people who showed up to vote without an acceptable ID and cast a provisional ballot ultimately had their vote rejected. What we don’t know is who chose not to show up at all because they didn’t have an ID, or didn’t want to show their ID, or any other number of voter dissuasion. 

In contrast, a voter ID law is meant to stop people from impersonating another in voting, nothing more. In the last five years or so, there have been a whopping 7 reported cases of someone trying to vote by impersonating another. Seven, that’s it. Even if that number is wrong by an order of magnitude and it’s actually 70, that’s over more than five years, as compared to nearly 500 in the primary election this year alone who were denied their vote. It’s just not a good policy where it’s disenfranchising exorbitantly more people from voting, and creates a lot of extra paperwork, hassle, and work for the poll workers, than compared to the problem it’s meant to address. This should not be a partisan issue; it should be common sense. It’s a dumb law. Oh, and by the way, of those 473 voters whose votes didn’t count, more were Republican than Democrat. And yes, I’m still vigorously arguing this is a dumb law.

In other news impacting democracy, and I’ve always considered education and especially public education as part of that, it’s been a tough few weeks for public education in North Carolina. At the same time that numerous courts have found, repeatedly, for years, that the General Assembly is underfunding public education to the tune of nearly a billion dollars just in the current budget cycle, the General Assembly is now set to give away nearly a billion dollars to private school vouchers. Yes, that’s money which could go to fund our underfunded public schools which the state has a duty to fund. Instead, the money is being diverted in what many are calling a welfare scheme for the wealthy since the voucher program has no income cap. Just a couple weeks ago, the state senate approved $463.5 million in additional funding for the Opportunity Scholarships, which goes on top of the roughly half billion that was already dedicated to the program. Public money is for public schools, period. This is wrong on so many levels, not the least of which is that it’s crippling our already strained public education system. It’s like setting a house on fire, refusing to answer the calls to help put out the fire, then pouring gas on the fire, all while arguing we need to divert resources to another house because the first house is burning.

Oh, and to make things worse, some legislators want to pass a law requiring public-school teachers—and only public-school teachers—to post lesson plans online within 10 days of a lesson and include the teacher’s name with the individual lesson plans. Again, this is idiotic and falls into the bucket of attempting to solve a phantom problem that doesn’t exist while creating much bigger problems. First, it’s an obvious attack on public education as it only applies to public education, despite all the public money now flowing into private schools. Second, it’s unnecessary. Student curriculum is already public. This is just creating another reporting requirement without the necessary manpower or funding to support it. In effect, it’s creating redundant work without the resources to complete the work. Reference my comment earlier about continuing to pour gasoline on the fire. I’m sure I could come up with a myriad of other arguments against this, but either one of those first two should carry the day, let alone both. Again, this is a dumb bill based on a phantom problem that would actually create far more problems than it solves.

Now, before we hear from Judge Thompson, I want to remind listeners about a few specifics of the North Carolina court system. As you’ll hear in our interview, Judge Thompson has served as a trial judge in both the District Court and Superior Court levels, as a deputy commissioner on the industrial commission, and as an appellate judge on the Court of Appeals. We went over the details of each level of the North Carolina courts in our episode with Justice Riggs, but as a quick refresher, district courts handle misdemeanor crimes and civil cases between $10,000 - $25,000. The district courts also hear family law and juvenile cases. District court judges are elected to four-year terms in North Carolina. The superior courts hear cases involving felony crimes, civil cases involving $25,000 or more, and appeals from district courts. These are generally the busiest of all our state courts in North Carolina, and superior court judges are elected to eight-year terms. The industrial commission is a quasi-judicial body that administers various specialty areas of law like worker’s comp and the tort claims act. And finally, our appellate courts, including the Court of Appeals, decide questions of law when a party appeals a case from a lower court. Appellate court judges and justices are elected for eight year terms.

Ok, that’s enough background. Let’s hear from Judge Thompson, hope you enjoy!

[music transition]

JD Wooten: With us today is Judge Carolyn Thompson of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Judge Thompson was appointed to the Court of Appeals by Governor Cooper, and is now running for a full term on the court. Judge Thompson, it's an honor to have you with us today. 

Carolyn Thompson: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's my honor, actually. Thank you. 

JD Wooten: Well, absolutely. So, even for my judicial candidate guests, I'm always curious, what’s your earliest memory of politics or getting involved in politics? 

Carolyn Thompson: Wow. It would be the times that I sat in the window of Woolworth's with my grandmother in my Sunday finest, not knowing why she had me all dressed up in patent leather shoes and in church dress and attire. To sit at that front window in the Woolworths in Danville, Virginia. I had no idea I was participating in a sit in, but those are my fondest memories of having jelly toast and milk at the Woolworths. And my grandmother never ordered anything, but it was later explained to me that she was taking a stand with so many people at that time.

JD Wooten: Wow, powerful memory. So before we get to your current campaign and judicial service, let's talk background for a moment. You earned your bachelor's degree from Hampton University and law degree from North Carolina Central School of Law. What led you to pursuing a legal career?

Carolyn Thompson: Well, again, I guess it goes back to childhood things. My, my mom was a single mom after my parents divorced at a very early age, and my mom was you know, struggling financially to take care of us and just kind of give you an idea of how old I am. The only idea of an attorney was Perry Mason and this cat won every single argument with one hand in his pocket. And I just knew I wanted to do what he was doing to win cases for kids. Who was struggling financially because of nonsupport, not knowing, of course, the terminology then, but I just knew I wanted to do something to help kids who were struggling like we were at that time.

And I remember writing this essay, Mrs. Adams. And what do you want to be when you grow up? And I wrote I want to be a lawyer and I told her all the reasons why in my essay. And she wrote, well, you might want to try to be a nurse or teacher, so that kind of thing. So I took it back to my 4' 11" mom who read it and was fired up mad, took me back up to the school and I remember her standing in front of Mrs. Adams saying, my baby girl, she says she wants to be a lawyer. She can be whatever she wants to be. And I better not hear anything different. And from there, history's being made. 

JD Wooten: Yes, ma'am. So, then, it sounds like your legal career started in family law with prosecution of petitions for abuse, neglect, and nonsupport. You might have also done some work, I believe I understood, victims of domestic abuse and their children, so it sounds like you just hinted at, but maybe dig a little deeper. What called you to that particular part of the law? That sounds like a calling. 

Carolyn Thompson: It is very much so. You can't in my opinion walk it and talk about it unless you've walked it. And a part of my growing up, were recollections of domestic violence in my home. With that being a part of something that I talk about in the book, Abigail's Veils, the book that I authored to deal with domestic violence in the faith community. And I recall the instance of being in the room, while my mom was a victim, but recognizing at that point that children who are present are also victims of domestic violence. So that just continued to feed the ministry through the legal work of turning things around for those who wanted to know how to get out safely and then for those around them to understand what they were going through. It was not about telling them what to do. It had to be an informed choice of safety first.

JD Wooten: Well, that sounds like a deep calling there and I admire anyone that has the stomach and fortitude to go into that area. I could barely even bring myself to want to take family law in law school, let alone practice it. Just the gut-wrenching emotions that come with it. 

Carolyn Thompson: Yeah. Yeah. And unfortunately, there are no winners in family court. They're either survivors or people who just understand you've got to love your children more than you hate your spouse or your significant other in that situation. And you do it, you have to come in with a purpose of understanding. There are no winners like in civil litigation. There are no guilty, not guilties as in criminal court. It's about taking the broken situation and mediating the best outcome for those who are involved. 

JD Wooten: So then after having done that for several years in private practice, as I understand it, you went on to become a district court judge and then a superior court judge. So we haven't had many guests with experience as trial court judges on the show. So would you like to explain for our listeners some of the similarities or differences in the work of the District and Superior Court? 

Carolyn Thompson: Yeah, sure. My days on the district court bench, it just reminds me of the kitchen sink. You get everything in the district court. And in my district, we were also responsible for hearing mental health cases because the hospital was so close to our, our court system. So district court, you're doing family law, criminal law, juvenile, juvenile delinquency, domestic violence. You're doing the appeals from magistrate court. And so on any given day, your entire community would look to you to bring timely resolutions to a huge docket of cases. And in a small rural area of Granville County, Vance County, Warren County, everybody who knows everybody, and they're bringing all of their issues and expecting the District Court Judge to bring it to an end some kind of way for them.

So in Superior Court, what I did was I traveled the circuit, if you will, in my area. And especially in the early days of being on the bench, you don't want to have the appearance of not being distant or fair in the situation. So I would be responsible for traveling the circuit to hear jury cases involving criminal and civil matters.

JD Wooten: And so I'm curious as you did that, were there any major differences as you saw it in your day to day routine between those two different courts, because they're both trial courts, but very different subject matter.

Carolyn Thompson: The Superior Court level is more controlled because you have your designated time slots when you're going to hear certain cases at a certain time, giving the parties their due time to put on evidence, but it's more of a controlled docket managed oftentimes in a week-long session. Whereas I could walk into criminal court or traffic court on a district court day to have 800 to 1000 cases on. People wrapped around the building and you're just like farming through file, or what we call shucks after shuck, after shuck. And a good day in district court is when everybody on your docket has their say, their time in court and you're not having to continue a case. And it had gotten to a place for me, which probably annoyed the bar, I had what was called the fourth and last rule. You will not walk into my courtroom and ask for another continuance. When I say last, I meant last. And fourth and last means fourth and last because people want closure. And if you've got to be in another court or another place to be, and you can't make it, then I'm giving you fair warning that your folks are ready to go. The court is ready to go. And it's not fair to hold up justice because you're too busy. And so I developed the fourth and last rule in my district. Like, if I say last and I mark it last and put my initials beside it, your case is going to be heard the next time. And it just, it's just a, it's just fair to the people.

JD Wooten: I can certainly appreciate, especially as a practitioner, at least knowing and having that sense of certainty. No, this really is when we're doing it. Let's go people. Let's go. 

Carolyn Thompson: And in fact, that's exactly what you say. Okay, let's go. 

JD Wooten: We're here. Let's do this. So then you also went on to serve as one of the deputy commissioners on the industrial commission, and that was just before your role on the Court of Appeals. I'm curious, how did that come to be? And how did that work compared to your work either in the trial court or later in the court of appeals? 

Carolyn Thompson: So I ran in 2022 with the slate of appellate candidates. And as you know, we lost all of the seats on the Democratic side of the race. And as a transition from having to go back in a private practice, I applied to the open position as a deputy commissioner. And so when I was appointed the 1st of the year after that campaign, I served in that quasi-judicial role. And I found out that I was the only 1 had actually been a judge before coming into a quasi-judicial role. So it benefited me that I already had the lay of the land of how to run a hearing and what was expected of me in those trials.

But it opened up another legal area of workers compensation. And I had never done any of that in my trial. Experience as an attorney, but when you know how to ride a bike, you can pick up the bike and ride it. That's what we do. That's how we're trained. And so my trial experience and then trial judge experience, judicial experience helped me in that quasi-judicial role.

And then here comes September and the Governor's making an appointment to replace Justice Morgan in his retirement. And I interviewed with the governor for the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. And so when I get this call in the middle of the day, I'm at, I'm at the commission. Hey, the governor wants to see you in the mansion. You know, what does a girl do? You know, you get up, you get your purse and you go over to the mansion and you interview. So it was very I was nerved sitting in the mansion and being interviewed. And when he said to me will you take up this fight and fight for the court of appeals?

I said, Governor, I've never stopped let's go. And September the 11th, I haven't stopped. I've been doing the work of the people for North Carolina. I'm hopeful in their confidence in the opinions that I've written so far that will reflect not just you know, my values, but our values and upholding the law equally across the board, regardless of whatever the ideologies are trying to pull us in a public sector, but honing down on bringing my trial experience my judicial experience to what I'm doing now on this level of court It's so important to me because I want to do a good job for all of North Carolina 

JD Wooten: That's an amazing story and I can't imagine getting that phone call and the nerves that must go with sitting there and having a conversation Yeah, right. Yeah, so so you're on the Court of Appeals now, you've been there for a little while As the name implies, it's one of our appellate courts. Quite a bit different than the trial court. When you were in trial court, you were the master of the room. Now you're in appellate court, you're still one of the masters in the room, but you have to share the limelight a little bit. How's that transition been for you? 

Carolyn Thompson: I think it's important to see it from the three-panel situation that we have now, I mean, well, where I'm not just seeing it from my rose glasses, I'm, I'm having to share the vision with two others who may look at it differently. And I welcome that actually, cause I, you don't, you never come into the room thinking I'm right. I want to hear what you have to say and what you think about how we should handle this case. And that dialogue is so powerful because if I really don't agree, I have the benefit of a dissent. But when all three are on the same page and we all see it differently, but at the same time, on a day when we concur it's a great day for the case and the people involved that they're going to get a resolution that doesn't involve dissent and carrying it over and dragging it out. But either way, I'm prepared to write a dissent if I have to, if I feel strongly about how a case should come out.

JD Wooten: And I, I don't have the numbers with me right off the top of my head, but it occurs to me, I've always been told that, especially given the volume of cases that make it to the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the nature of the cases that make it, far more of them are unanimous decisions than, than there are actually dissents. Dissents aren't as common as maybe the news media makes it out to seem. 

Carolyn Thompson: Right, exactly. I work with a great group of jurists who understand the importance of dialogue when we are conferencing. And then you may get stuck in a particular area and you just stand firm on, no, this is how I interpret it. And if I am going to author it then they have the benefit of doing the dissent, and that's why it's important to have a diverse bench. We bring to bear our life experiences, whether we, you know, say it openly or not. But if I see it, because I've been in a court representing defendants who are underrepresented, and I've seen the impact of not having an engaged attorney to capture a clear error and didn't object, or didn't bring it to the court's attention for their client. The impact is that the lawyer gets to go home and the defendant is in jail where something so obvious, glaringly obvious to the reader, because we just have the record in front of us. But having sat on the bench and argued in front of the bench, I get that perspective of, no, I see what happened here. You know, no, this is what really should have happened here or no, the court got it right.

JD Wooten: It's fascinating. As I've developed in my own practice, it is fun getting to that point that you can look at a record, or you can look even at the deposition transcript and say, okay, I see the words, but I hear it. 

Carolyn Thompson: Exactly. 

JD Wooten: I can feel it. I know what it was like to be in that room in that moment. So, I do have another question at the court of appeals. Let's just say it's a case where all three of the judges agree, and it's going to be a concurrence from everyone. Do you draw straws for who's writing the majority opinion? Or do you say, okay, this is kind of my bread and butter in my practice. I know this area. Let me draw this or... 

Carolyn Thompson: No, but I will say, we are assigned in advance who's going to author, we get the docket sheet and we're told, you know, who's going to author the opinion. And it's random who's going to do the opinion, but when we are conferencing and it comes, for example initially in one particular case, I was going to be the author, but the other two did not agree, so then they will have to decide who's going to do the majority opinion. And then I will write the dissent. But that doesn't happen often. But when, like I said, when you are firm and know this is how it should be, be prepared to write a dissent. 

JD Wooten: So for most of our candidate guests at this point, and you are a candidate as well as a sitting jurist, I would ask you about a platform. However, since judicial candidates cannot speak to issues that will or even may come before them, and with very good reason, instead, maybe I could ask it this way. What are some of the guiding principles you use to think through issues when they come to you in your appellate cases? 

Carolyn Thompson: Having the 27 years under my belt and just on a personal side of on this side of 50 being 55 and seeing the drastic change since I started practicing in the 90s. You can see a trend that the least of these, those who need the system need a fair shot, need someone to hear when they're truly being wronged by the absence of due process, that's where I draw the line and being pulled into ideologies, political stance, party affiliation. It is my task, my charge to make sure that justice is served. And that's when I'm opening up the first page and seeing who the appellant is and reading what happened below. We don't get the stats on race and all that stuff. Thankfully we don't, we're coming in blind. So it gives me the opportunity on a platform to say, equal justice for all. I don't care where you came from. Your appeal, if you wrote it in pencil, means just as much to me as if you hired an expensive attorney or had a court appointed attorney. It means just as much to me to read through and make sure you had your fair day in court.

JD Wooten: So I'm curious, what's been the most meaningful experience you've had out on the campaign trail so far? 

Carolyn Thompson: The moment when you walk into a room, and you get an aha moment from, hey, if you guys don't get out to vote in this election, and I know we've been saying it's consequential, let me tell you what's going to happen on the other side of this and how important it is to vote for judges. And when I explained to them how the judicial system has been the firewall for so long, to the point that we were required to now designate our party affiliation as some form of type of judge that I guess they're expecting us to be, and I get to tell them that the most powerful thing you can say in a courtroom are two words, I appeal. And you want me to be up there when your appeal comes, because I'm going to make sure that I'm upholding the law and applying your facts and your situation with your clear eyes toward justice. And then, you know, a light bulb goes off. That's a good day on a campaign trail. 

JD Wooten: That sounds amazing. So before we close, is there anything else you want our listeners to know about Judge Thompson and your campaign for election to the North Carolina Court of Appeals full term? 

Carolyn Thompson: Well, I'm thankful to be the incumbent, but it means little to nothing to be appointed if I can't be elected. I need the help from ambassadors out there to stress the importance of protecting democracy on the level of appellate courts. The court of appeals handles 90%, if not more of all the cases. And I say this humbly, with our ink pens being as small as they are, we don't have the big mics like the top of the ticket. We don't have the gubernatorial monies and the presidential monies to fund messaging. So every chance you can, say something about Judge Thompson being fair, impartial, experienced. She's the one who's going to protect our rights not because of any pulling or pressure, because it's simply the right thing to do as my sworn oath. And I'll continue to do the same. 

JD Wooten: Well, I can't think of a better place to wrap up and then transition to our most important question of the day. Where can people go to learn more about you and your campaign?

Carolyn Thompson: is the website and you can even sign up to help as a volunteer and give us your talent and your monies if you want to, because as I said, you know, it's difficult as a judge. Not because of arrogancy or because we are just so up there. It's difficult for us to go around and say we are experienced, and the platform, and get people to get engaged. So we need help, help all of us, not just Carolyn Thompson. We're running as a team to get our courts balanced and more transparent. 

JD Wooten: Well, we'll leave links in the show notes for that. Thank you, Judge Thompson. It's been an absolute pleasure having you today. 

Carolyn Thompson: Well, thank you. I really appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time.

[music transition]

JD Wooten: Thanks again to everyone for listening today. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, send me an email at And as always, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and share this episode with a friend. Together, we can achieve a better North Carolina for everyone!