Full Legal Name: Kerstin Walker Sutton
Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Kerry Sutton
Partisan Affiliation: Democrat
Date of Birth: 1961
Home/Mailing Address: 3215 Deerchase Wynd, Durham, 27712
Occupation & Employer: Attorney, Law Office of Kerstin Walker Sutton, PLLC
Bachelor's Degree Year & Institution: 1996, UNC-CH (Communications)
JD Year & School: 2001, NCCU
Years lived in North Carolina: 19
Phone: (919) 237-2111
1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing the District Court? What are your top priorities or issues of concern for the coming term?
The most important issue facing the Durham District Courts is finding ways to work smarter with the resources we have. If we can resolve court scheduling bottlenecks by finding ways to move cases through the system more efficiently, we can alleviate some of the overcrowding problems and decrease courtroom downtime, while increasing the safety level for citizens and employees in the building and freeing up more time to initiate new programs.
Specifically, I would suggest we consider replicating one or more District Court programs I have been involved with and seen used with great success in our neighboring counties.
Orange County has a Community Resource Court (CRC) that handles criminal cases where the defendants have mental health issues. The CRC monitors and rewards compliance with treatment plans recommended by a team of local mental health and social work professionals. Being under the CRC's watchful eye has helped many defendants keep on track with necessary treatment and has allowed them to move on to crime-free lives. Orange County's CRC is similar to Durham's very successful Drug Treatment Court. We recognize that some defendants are simply unable to find their way out of the criminal justice system through traditional avenues due to substance abuse or mental health issues. Thinking of new ways to adapt our processes to give them a chance to end the cycle of crime helps the entire community and makes us stronger.
Wake County has a dedicated DWI courtroom that they have used to streamline the scheduling of cases for trial with fewer continuances. The focused procedures developed for DWI court have helped decrease Wake County's backlog of DWI cases and cut down on the amount of time law enforcement officers are sitting in court and off the streets.
Each of those specialized courts was created to address a specific need in the county. Creative thinking and a willingness to look beyond the status quo for answers could allow us to develop an array of court programs that other counties look to as a model. We have the talent, ingenuity and local resources in Durham to be the best. That should be the bar we set for ourselves.
2. What qualifies you to serve?
The breadth of my legal experience and depth of my District Court practice experience is unique in the field of candidates seeking the McKown seat. I have worked in over 20 different district courtrooms in nine counties before dozens of District Court judges. More importantly, I have practiced in our district courts virtually every week of this century and have purposefully focused my practice on District Court matters with the intention of developing the experience and expertise necessary to become a District Court Judge.
From 1998 to 2001, I worked under the supervision of then District Attorney Carl Fox as an unpaid District Court intern managing daily calendars and trying cases for the Orange and Chatham Counties District Attorney's offices. Since 2001, I have represented clients in Durham's District and Superior criminal courts as well as in our specialized district courts that handle traffic, domestic violence, drug treatment, family, competency special proceedings, child support and juvenile cases.
Based on this concentrated background of highly relevant experience, I have been called upon to make presentations at several continuing legal education courses for lawyers on district court topics related to substantive law and best practices. I have also made presentations at numerous legislative committee meetings over the years on topics related to criminal law and the adequate funding of the courts and other legal institutions in Durham and around the state.
A district court practice is not the road to fame and fortune. While I have worked on several high-profile felony cases, I have also handled thousands of low- and no-profile cases in district court. I have done that work in order to hone the specific skill set that is necessary to be exactly where I am today ... a highly qualified candidate for District Court Judge.
3. How do you define yourself politically? How does that impact your judicial approach?
I identify with candidates whose actions and records most closely match my own evolving worldview and I appreciate those candidates who have acquired any additional expertise in an area that might be required to represent me well in their elected positions. I believe a good candidate for any position can come from any background and therefore I try to thoughtfully evaluate every candidate for their particular suitability for the job sought.
I plan to use the same approach when considering matters from the bench by fully evaluating and weighing evidence and expert testimony presented by the parties and making an informed decision based on the merits of each case.
4. FOR INCUMBENTS: What have been your most important decisions in your current capacity? FOR CHALLENGERS: What decisions has the incumbent made that you most disagree with?
I am running for an open judicial seat with no incumbent.
5. What do you feel was the U.S. Supreme Court's most important recent decision? Did you agree with the majority?
The January 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has the potential to be the first in a series of cases that could change the face of elective politics in the United States. In striking down federal law that barred corporations from spending their money on politics, the majority likened such spending to speech with protections under the First Amendment. The Citizens opinion was fairly narrowly written and further case law developments will define whether this is the political path on which our country will stay.
6. Do you feel that North Carolina's current system of judicial elections serves the state well? Are there other forms of selecting judges you feel would function better or worse than the current one?
There are vocal fans and detractors of each potential system in almost every professional meeting I attend on this topic. I believe our system of judicial elections, while imperfect, serves our state adequately. I do not have faith that a purely appointed bench would be sufficiently representative of the diversity of our citizens. Although retention elections of appointees would give the public an opportunity to review a jurist's work before returning them to the bench, it does not address the perceived flaws in a purely appointed system. A hybrid process of merit screening candidates before an election could produce a more consistently qualified field of candidates, but also has its shortcomings. Most people probably don't realize that even though we elect judges in North Carolina, a remarkably high percentage of our judges begin their judicial careers as appointees, filling seats that become open mid-term and seats that are newly created. I believe that effort to provide the public with candidate information like that included in this questionnaire gives every voter the opportunity to make an informed decision. As long as we are going to elect judges, casting informed votes is the most important part of making it work.
7. Have you ever pled guilty or no contest to any criminal charge other than a minor traffic offense? Please explain.
In 1989, I pled guilty to DWI in Germantown, Tennessee.
8. Is there anything else you'd like to add about yourself or the issues that are important to you?
I have served in elected leadership roles for the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, an association of roughly 4,000 North Carolina attorneys. I have been an NCAJ Vice President since 2008, served on the Board of Governors since 2004, and won several awards for dedicated service to the organization. I have analyzed hundreds of bills during each legislative session, working with the NCAJ legislative team to advance the association's annual legislative agenda with the stated mission of protecting people's rights.
Governor Beverly Perdue appointed me in 2009 to the Governor's Crime Commission, the chief advisory body to the Governor on crime and justice issues. Appointed as the Commission's sole criminal defense attorney, I have proudly served the citizens of North Carolina on the Commission's Crime Victims' Services Committee.
The extensive amount of time I have committed to advocating for the citizens of North Carolina in the above roles has crystallized my desire to help make Durham a better place for all of our families and loved ones through the important work of being a District Court Judge.
In addition to nine years of running a solo law practice and dedicated professional leadership, one of the main experiences of my life that has led me to believe I am well-prepared for the hard work required of our judges has been the extraordinary challenge of single parenthood. There is nothing like being the court of last resort for two young sons day after day for the better part of a decade to crystallize one's priorities, focus and time management skills. I have done my best to instill in my children a passion for contributing to the community, doing the right thing and never giving up.
In summary, while we seek judges with broad life experiences, we should do so because that has led them to a place of maturity, deliberate thoughtfulness, and an appreciation for the unpredictable vagaries of life, not because their experiences might cause them to form a bias one way or another towards any given course of action or class of people. I will focus on using our judicial system resources wisely, maximizing our efficiency, and administering justice in every case with a calm and even hand. I have confidence I can achieve those goals and I will need Durham's votes on May 4th and November 2nd to do so.
9. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.
I do not believe becoming a judge allows one to impose their personal beliefs or principles on the citizens when ruling from the bench. It is a judge's job to apply the law as written to the facts and evidence as presented. I have pledged to do so with courtesy, efficiency and an even hand.
While I am dedicated to improving the efficiency of our District Courts wherever I can in order to make the most of our resources, I will not forget that they are the front line courts of the judicial system for the people of Durham. I will do my best to see that people are not processed out of the courtroom without a clear understanding of what has transpired in their case. I will not sacrifice informed justice for the people merely for the sake of expediency. I will remember that while each court may see hundreds of people on any given day, each person present for any type of case deserves to have that case addressed as promptly as possible and with the full attention of the court and others involved. I will treat citizens, employees and officers of the court in my court with the same respect I expect to receive from them.
10. On the District Court level, what improvements can be made in terms of the juvenile justice system? What are the weaknesses or constraints in the court's handling of juvenile offenders?
I support Sen. Ellie Kinnaird's Senate Bill 1048 introduced in 2009 in which she seeks to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina to include 16 and 17 year-olds. Removing children who commit less than the most serious felonies from our adult court process will lessen the chance that an isolated act of poor judgment will be permanently reflected on their criminal records. Even the slightest criminal record can cause many to fall into a cycle of unemployment and reduced opportunities that can follow them into adulthood. Our youngest citizens deserve every bit of support we can provide. It is our collective job as a community to give them every opportunity to become productive neighbors who can join us in our desire to be part of one of the most diverse and dynamic counties in the state.
As with most if not all of our court programs, inadequate financial resources allocated from the state and other governmental entities for the juvenile court leaves us with not enough court counselors, other necessary staff, programs, equipment and secure facilities. The day we say we "can't" get more resources is the day we give up on our children and their futures. Every elected official and community leader must continually seek new resources, partners, and ideas that will allow us to move forward and support the children of our county who need our help.
Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to share my thoughts on my unique suitability to be elected to the McKown seat on the Durham District Court bench. My campaign website can be found at www.Sutton2010.org. Please let me know if you have any other questions. -Kerry Sutton