Name as It Appears on the Ballot: Alonzo Brown Coleman, Jr.
Date of Birth: June 30, 1937
Campaign Web Site: reelectcolemanforjudge.com
Occupation and Employer: District Court Judge, State of North Carolina
Years Lived in Orange County: Most of my life
1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing your judicial district? What are your top three priorities in addressing these issues?
A. Lack of facilities and personnel. We don't have enough courtrooms, conference rooms, community resource officers, case workers, clerks, district attorneys, public defenders, or probation officers. Every time I hold court we're violating the fire code. There aren't enough courtrooms and D.A.s and judges to try cases. There's no place at the courthouse for lawyers to meet with their clients or with witnesses—they have to go outside or meet in the corridor or in the courtroom itself because there are no conference rooms. It's impossible to maintain decorum in the courtroom. We're building an extension to the courthouse in Hillsborough, but Chapel Hill and Pittsboro and Siler City aren't getting any better, and personnel will remain terribly inadequate.
B. Vagrancy and homelessness. These are wearisome problems for law-enforcement and for the courts. People get in trouble merely because of their status. In my eyes this is a social, not a court-related, problem, but it clogs up the courts and there's nothing the courts can do about it.
C. Immigrants without legal status. Given that there are and will continue to be illegal immigrants in this community, we need to figure out a way to let them get licenses to drive, to buy cars, and to work. The way it is now, an illegal immigrant can't get a driver's license, so he drives without a license. That means he doesn't take a driver's test, which means he has no incentive to learn to drive adequately. He can't buy insurance. He can't buy a car. He has to work, and in many communities around here there's not enough public transportation to get him to work without a car. We could institute a special driving permit for immigrants for which it would not be necessary to show a social security card or a proof of legal residence, just in order to enroll people in an insured and skill-tested system.
2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective district court judge? This might include career or community service. Be specific about its relevance to this office.
I spent 30 years as a trial lawyer and I've been a district court judge for 13 years. I've lived in Hillsborough and Orange County almost my entire life. I have a deep sense of responsibility to this community. I believe a judge's decisions have an impact on the community. I have studied Spanish for 12 years, ever since I realized how many of our newer residents speak only Spanish, and I use my knowledge of the language practically every day in the courtroom. I show patience in court and try to get things right, stopping a case to ask lawyers background questions or to submit briefs. I don't make snap decisions. I am courteous to all parties. I believe these qualities are what people speak of as having a "judicial temperament." I've received endorsements in this campaign from many segments of the community, including the Association of Women Trial Lawyers, authors Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, House Speaker Joe Hackney, State Representative Verla Insko, Congressman David Price and Lisa Price, State Senator Ellie Kinnaird, Judges Gordon Battle and Patricia Love, Professor Dan Pollitt, Attorney Alan McSurely, and many private citizens whose support I value highly.
3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?
I would define myself as an independent minded judge, not a politician. The actions of government should be transparent and the actors should be held accountable for their actions. I don't have a "campaign platform."
4. 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.
This isn't a question I can answer. I believe all my judgments have been principled. A judge can't be concerned with popularity.
5. The Independent's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election help further that goal?
I've always done my best to serve the interests of justice in the community, remembering, though, what my professor at UNC Dan Pollitt said, that mercy always trumps justice. If I'm re-elected, I will continue to do so.
6. How long do you plan to serve if elected, and how long will you be able to serve?
Unless the General Assembly extends the mandatory retirement age for judges, which there is some discussion of their doing, I must resign when I reach 72; that will be on June 30, 2009. However, Judge Buckner, who is the Chief District Court Judge, has asked that I stay on as an appointed judge on a per diem basis after that date, and I would be happy to do so for as long as he likes.
7. North Carolina prosecutes 16-year-olds as adults. (Thirteen-year-old juveniles who are charged with felonies can also be prosecuted as adults, if transferred from juvenile court.) Do you support the raising of the juvenile jurisdiction to 18? Please explain why or why not.
Yes. Most cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds are not matters of serious crime. On a first offense the defendant may enter into a deferred prosecution agreement or receive a suspended sentence. In adult court, that's it. In juvenile court, the defendant also receives counseling and follow-up in an attempt to keep him from becoming a repeat offender. In other words, the juvenile court system has more resources for the defendant and a different attitude about helping him avoid further criminal activity. Raising the age to 18 would still allow for trying a younger person as an adult if the crime were a serious felony.
8. Are you in favor of raising suggested bond guidelines for serious felonies? Are you in favor of unsecured bonds for Class 2 and 3 misdemeanors? Please explain.
I think bond guidelines are adequate as presently in effect. Unsecured bonds for Class 2 and 3 misdemeanors are appropriate unless the offender is a threat to a person or to the community. Most such offenders can't raise a secured bond and the result would be a jail term, which would sometimes be a good thing but often would be unnecessarily harsh. And our jails are overcrowded as it is.
9. What is your experience in juvenile court? What can be done to prevent delinquency and gang involvement?
Although I'm not primarily a juvenile court judge, I have presided over juvenile court and I have received training in the areas of juvenile court and gang prevention. Many of the defendants appearing in juvenile court have been raised in low-income families, often by parents addicted to drugs or alcohol. Delinquency and gang involvement are societal issues, not primarily court issues. I had a young man come through my court and was tempted to lecture him about how he was breaking his mother's heart, only to find out later that his mother was the real drug dealer and he was only her delivery boy. I was glad I'd kept my mouth shut. And gangs are often substitute families for children whose own families have failed them.
When adjudicating a juvenile case, the court should be aware of all the issues involving the defendant's family. The court should order the entire family to participate in programs that will address its needs. Most children are willing and able to change if their underlying issues are addressed.
10. District court judges do not continue cases past 120 days after the first appearance. Is that too long, or too short? Why?
The 120-day guideline applies to criminal cases. It was created to reduce the number of times the parties must appear in court and to ensure that facts aren't lost to fading memories.
The guideline, in and of itself, is adequate, but it's difficult to follow if you don't have adequate resources: courtroom space, prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, and so on. This area is constantly growing and the number of cases coming to court is constantly increasing. When the addition to the courthouse in Hillsborough is open we will have more courtroom space, but I fear that there won't be enough prosecutors, public defenders, or clerks to hold more sessions of court.
11. Do you favor or oppose public financing of judicial races? Please explain. What changes would you make to the current system?
I think when a person first becomes a judge he or she should be appointed by the governor, from a slate of candidates presented to the governor by the local bar. When a judge's first term ends, he or she should then be voted up or down by the public. If the judge is not approved, then the governor would get another slate of candidates from which to appoint a replacement. Such a system could completely remove the question of financing, unless some group wanted to run a campaign to remove a certain judge. Even then, they'd have no reason to think their preferred replacement would be appointed. I think this system would be much less expensive and would ensure that only qualified judges are sworn into office.
12. The state Court of Appeals recently overturned a conviction of a man sentenced to more than 60 years in prison, citing the district attorney's delaying of his trial for nearly five years. If elected, what will be your procedure for ensuring that defendants receive a speedy and fair trial? What is your opinion of upholding the right to a speedy trial, when the consequence of doing so might be that a person guilty of a serious crime goes free?
In the District Court setting I wouldn't be dealing with cases similar to the example in the question. Nevertheless, I believe it's important to guarantee a speedy and fair trial. In my experience it is much more often the defendant who requests a continuance, thus delaying the trial. If we are able to comply with the 120-day guideline that we have adopted for Criminal District Court, we will ensure each defendant's right to a speedy trial.
13. North Carolina's Habitual Felon Act mandates that repeat felony offenders receive more punitive sentences. Should judges be given more discretion to impose sentences tailored to each individual case? Please explain your answer.
In District Court a judge is faced with repeat misdemeanor offenders, not repeat felony offenders, so this situation doesn't arise. In general, though, I believe judges should always be given discretion to impose sentences appropriate to individual cases. There are some misdemeanor offenders I've seen in court 10 or 20 or 30 times, charged with the same offense, for which the standard sentence is a day in jail. It has been my experience that as soon as the person is released he commits the same offense again. It becomes back to jail overnight and back to court and back to jail and back to court and so on. The whole thing is a waste of time for the police and for the court. Clearly the offender is either mentally ill, an alcoholic, a drug addict, or a vagrant. His problems are not really an appropriate matter for the legal system.