Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Jim Dornfried
Full Legal Name: James Peter Dornfried
Date of Birth: October 3, 1967
Campaign Web Site: www.jimdforjudge.com
Occupation & Employer: First Assistant District Attorney, Durham County, State of North Carolina
Years lived in Durham County: 15
1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing the Superior District 14A Court? What are your top three priorities in addressing these issues?
One of the most important issues presently facing the Superior Court in Durham County involves matters of efficiency. Court resources are limited, and it is imperative that these resources be fully utilized in an efficient and effective manner while also ensuring that all parties that appear before the court be treated fairly and impartially. A separate but equally important issue is courthouse security. It is essential in the pursuit of justice that all persons involved in a matter before the court be free from intimidation, undue influence, or reprisals.
Fully utilizing trial sessions is a necessary step in maximizing the efficiency of the court system. Felony trials in Durham are typically scheduled for two consecutive weeks, and all parties involved in a trial are made aware that witnesses' attendance should be secured for both weeks. Therefore, once one jury begins deliberating in a trial, a subsequent trial can commence even if it is anticipated that this subsequent trial may carry over to the following week. It has been my responsibility over the past two years to organize and manage the Superior Court trial calendars on behalf of the District Attorney's Office. Shortly after taking on this role, it became abundantly clear that an insufficient number of jurors were being summoned on Thursdays and no jurors were summoned on Fridays thereby preventing trials from beginning in the latter part of the week which in turn resulted in court time being underutilized. I requested that the number of jurors summoned on Thursdays be increased and that jurors be summoned for Fridays. Ultimately, the decision regarding summoning jurors in the latter part of the week was decided by the incumbent judge, who is my opponent in this judicial race. In response to my request, he decided to increase the number of jurors summoned on Thursdays, but refused to have jurors available on Fridays. Therefore, no juror trials can begin on a Friday regardless of the anticipated duration of the trial. In Durham there are typically eight courtrooms assigned to hear trials over the course of a month. This is a potential loss of 8 trial days a month or 96 trial days a year. As a judge I would strongly advocate and encourage that jurors be summoned on Fridays in order to maximize the amount of trial time and thereby increasing the number of trials while decreasing the median age of cases awaiting trial.
As a judge I would require that the parties who appear before me be properly prepared to address matters scheduled before the court on that date. Most cases are resolved through some type of non-trial disposition. In civil cases this resolution comes in the form of a settlement, and in a criminal case it would be the entry of a plea agreement. However, before a non-trial resolution can be agreed upon among the parties it is necessary that discovery matters be resolved, motions be heard, and the parties engage in meaningful discussions towards a means of resolving the case. Only when the parties are properly prepared can the aforementioned be accomplished and any real progress be achieved towards the disposition of cases.
Security within the courthouse is paramount in the pursuit of justice. In the past jurors and witnesses have complained of being intimated in the courthouse hallways during breaks in a trial as well as in the courtroom itself by having individuals take their photograph with a cellphone and then abruptly leaving the courtroom. The design of the new courthouse may help minimize confrontations and interactions that could result in intimidation and undue influence. However, within the courtroom the judge must immediately address any situation that arises in which an outside influence could affect the outcome of a trial. Having been an assistant district attorney in Durham over the past 16 years I am aware that circumstances can arise which require a judge to not only take control over a courtroom but also the actions of those within that courtroom in order to ensure that a case is decided solely on evidence presented and law as instructed by the Court
2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective superior court judge? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.
I have had the privilege of serving as an assistant district attorney with the Durham District Attorney's Office for over 16 years. As an assistant district attorney I have handled a variety of cases from traffic offenses to murder. I have been assigned a multitude of different offenses ranging from breaking and entering into cars, businesses, and homes, specifically home invasions targeting Hispanic members of our community. I also prosecuted major drug rings that operated over state and international borders. Additionally, I have prosecuted crimes of violence that include armed robbery, kidnapping, and serious felony assaults resulting in permanent and debilitating injuries. Presently, I focus on violent offenses and murder. Over the course of my career I have tried well over 100 felony jury trials, and during the past five years I prosecuted and tried more murder cases than any other person in Durham County.
I have also been assigned supervisory responsibilities within the District Attorney's Office. On behalf of the District Attorney's Office I was entrusted with organizing and managing the Superior Court criminal trials and administrative matters heard by the court during trial session weeks. During this time frame the number of jury trials rose significantly, the conviction rate also increased, and the dismissal rate decreased. I have extensive legal experience within the Superior Court Division and I have demonstrated the knowledge and ability to increase the efficiency within the court system.
3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?
I am a Democrat. I have helped organize the Democratic Party in my local precinct, and served as a delegate at the Durham County Democratic Party Convention. A judge, however, should base decisions and rulings on the evidence presented and the established law. A judge's personal and political philosophy should not affect judicial rulings. It is fundamental and vital to our judicial system that court rulings be based on established law and that all parties who come before the court be treated fairly and equally regardless of whom they know, what they look like, or their economic status. As a judge, my political philosophy will not impact nor influence my judicial decisions.
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.
A Superior Court judge is required to base decisions solely on the evidence and the law, and should not be concerned with whether a judicial decision will be viewed as popular or unpopular by society. A judge must follow the law as established by the legislature and is bound by precedent promulgated by appellate court opinions. A judge's duties require that findings of fact be made, but these findings of fact must be based solely on the evidence presented at the appropriate legal proceedings. Whether a legal ruling would be viewed as popular or unpopular should have no bearing on a a judge's decision. It would be inappropriate and wrong for a judge to issue legal rulings or findings of fact that are neither supported by the law nor the evidence but yet are perceived to be political popular. Furthermore, it would be inappropriate to speculate or comment upon legal issues that may appear before me at some point in the future. I can promise that my findings of fact will be based solely on competent evidence introduced at the relevant legal proceeding, my legal decisions will be based on established law, and that I will treat all those who appear before me equally and with respect.
5. The Independent's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?
When I first began my legal career I decided to pursue an occupation that would always allow me to do the right thing for the right reasons. This is a belief that I have lived by every day, and carry the belief that without integrity, truthfulness, and honesty a person truly has nothing. I lived by these beliefs when I represented those who were listed able to defend themselves. I defended children who were subjected to neglect, the elderly who were abused and defrauded, and those subjected to involuntary commitment as a result of mental impairment. I held true to these beliefs as moved from the private practice of law to joining the District Attorney's Office. As an assistant district attorney I have consistently striven to seek justice for victims and their families, and seek resolutions that I consider to be just. Over the past 20 years of my legal career I have held true to the beliefs that have justice at their core.
I also recognize that the position of a Superior Court Judge must convey to the public the appearance of being fair, just, reasoned, and truthful in order to convey confidence in the court system. To this end, I have respectful declined accepting donations from attorneys so as to avoid the potential appearance of a conflict of interest should that individual appear before me in the future. I recognize that it is permissible for a judicial candidate to accept donations from attorneys, and I am keenly aware that a judicial campaign can become rather expensive; however, my belief in maintaining not only impartiality, but also the appearance of impartiality, has compelled me to decline donations from attorneys. I recognize that my financial limitations may prevent me from running a sophisticated political campaign, but nonetheless my message of being a fair and impartial will be conveyed for all to see. I am also aware that my legal decisions and rulings will be subject to scrutiny by the public. Recently the Court of Appeals reversed a Durham judge's ruling to dismiss a murder charge. The Court of Appeals found that findings of fact were not supported by competent evidence. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals in reversing the judge's dismissal of the murder charge stated that "a trial court's decision concerning the imposition of discovery-related sanctions pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. (sec.) 15A-910 may only be reversed based on a 'finding that the trial court abused its discretion...which means that the trial court's ruling was so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision.' " Abuse of discretion can have a negative impact on the public's perception of our justice system, especially when such findings are unsupported by the facts or the law. My rulings will be based on the evidence presented at the appropriate legal proceeding as applied to established law in order to ensure the public's confidence in our judicial system.
6. What is your experience with juvenile felony offenders? What can be done to prevent delinquency and gang involvement?
I have personally prosecuted juvenile offenders charged with murder as well as supervised the juvenile court prosecutor within the District Attorney's Office. With the exception of homicide cases juvenile offenders are rarely transferred for prosecution to Superior Court in Durham, and juveniles are infrequently charged with murder. Funding related to educational and after-school programs are instrumental in curbing juvenile delinquency and gang affiliation. Keeping children involved and engaged in school is absolutely essential. However, some children struggle academically and a lack of funding prevents these children from receiving the necessary intensive educational assistance. It is in this type of instance that a child can become frustrated with school and academics which can then lead to truancy. A child out of school and unsupervised becomes a prime target for recruitment by gangs. The same opportunity for gang recruitment can occur when after-school programs are lacking due to financial cut backs. Parents are working long hours, and in some instances at multiple jobs, just to provide for the basic needs of their families. Without after-school activities to focus the time and attention of children whose parents are working long hours, the lure and attraction of the glorified gang lifestyle can become tempting to a young person. Gangs prey upon young people whom they view as seeking acceptance by a type of surrogate family. Therefore, it is extremely important that after-school activities are in place to focus the attention of young people in a positive direction.
7. What improvements could be made in the Durham County judicial system to expedite the trying of cases and ease caseloads?
As explained above in the answer to Question #1 above, having jurors available to start a trial on Fridays would allow the court system to take the greatest advantage of the limited resources available. While some cases may carry over to the following week, there are other trials, such as lower level felony trials or a misdemeanor trial, which can be conducted in one day. Court personnel is already present in the courthouse and the courtrooms are available, these resources should be utilized every day of the work week. A local crime lab would certainly diminish the waiting period for forensic testing as more fully discussed in the answer to Question 8 below. Unfortunately within the criminal court system, there is no shortage of criminal charges being initiated through criminal investigations. Without forensic testing results, caseloads will continue to increase. However, the sooner test results are received, the sooner cases can be resolved and thereby diminish caseloads. When caseloads are overwhelming, then justice suffers. Only when caseloads are at a manageable level will attorneys be in a position to provide each case with the attention it truly deserves.
I also firmly believe that a trial calendar should be a true trial calendar. Some attorneys routinely treat the week of a trial calendar to be the time to engage in negotiations. Leading up to a trial week, attorneys are prepping for trial, meetings occur with witnesses, subpoenas are being served, illustrative exhibits are being created. The appropriate time to engage in negotiations is either during mediation in civil cases or the administrative case management settings in criminal cases. If a judge can assist the parties in coming together in order to reach a resolution during mediation or a case management setting, then I would fully support that endeavor. To routinely engage in plea negotiations on the eve of trial serves to delay case resolutions, and wastes time and effort preparing for a trial that will never occur. If a trial calendar is treated as a true trial calendar then cases that were never intended to be tried will be resolved at an earlier time, caseloads will be reduced, and the parties will be able to devote greater efforts to cases that truly are to be tried.
8. How has the absence of a crime lab in Durham County affected the administration of justice in superior court?
Put simply, justice delayed is justice denied. Law enforcement agencies in Durham County are completely dependent on the North Carolina State Crime Lab to perform testing and analysis of DNA, forensic drug analysis, and forensic blood analysis related to impairing substances. The North Carolina State Crime Lab performs the aforementioned forensic tests for most law enforcement agencies throughout North Carolina and, therefore, is significantly overworked while being underfunded and understaffed. The City-County Bureau of Identification (CCBI) in Wake County performs forensic testing for Wake County in several areas including forensic drug analysis and blood analysis related to impairing substances and, therefore, provides a point of comparison between the waiting periods for these tests to be performed at a local crime lab as opposed to the North Carolina Crime Lab. In regards to blood analysis concerning impairing substance, this testing primarily affects DWI cases which originate in District Court as opposed to Superior Court. Nonetheless, DWI is a very serious offense that creates a danger to the public on the roadways. The waiting period for a blood analysis from CCBI is 2-3 weeks. Whereas, the waiting period for a blood analysis from the North Carolina State Crime Lab is 6-12 months. Forensic drug analysis does effect a major portion of felony cases is Superior Court. The waiting period for a forensic drug analysis from CCBI is 3 weeks, and the waiting period from the North Carolina State Crime Lab is 4 months for cases in which a rush request was made by a prosecutor and over a year if no such request is made. Obviously not every case can be rushed, otherwise the rush request would not have any real meaning or effect.
Most violent crime and homicide investigations involve the analysis of DNA evidence. The underfunded and understaffed situation at the State Crime Lab has the most profound implication on court cases involving DNA testing. In regards to DNA testing, the State Crime Lab receives requests for DNA testing from counties all over North Carolina. As a result of this overwhelming demand for DNA testing from various law enforcement agencies throughout North Carolina, it can take between 6 months to a year for a DNA analysis to be completed. All homicides and violent crimes are rightfully viewed as being priority cases. During this time period many of the accused are unable to make their bonds, and the victims and their families are left confused and frustrated as to the extended delay in obtaining the testing results. The public has a right to feel confident that violent crimes are being addressed in an appropriate manner. However, in the absence of a local crime lab that could perform DNA testing, the parties involved are forced to wait while the administration of justice is placed on hold.