Name as it appears on the ballot: Linda Stephens
Campaign website: www.JudgeLindaStephens.org
Phone number: (919)346-3564
Years lived in the state: 42
Please tell us what in your record as a public official or private citizen demonstrates your ability to be effective, fair, and impartial on the bench? These might include career or community service—please be specific.
I believe that my record, meaning the hundreds of decisions that I have authored in the 10 years that I have served on the Court of Appeals, reflects my commitment and ability to be effective, fair, and impartial on the bench. For folks that do not have the time to comb through all of these opinions, I refer you to two opposing legal organizations in our state. Both have honored me with their highest awards in recent years, making me the first person to have ever received both awards. In 2015, I was awarded the J. Robert Elster Award for professional excellence by the NC Association of Defense Attorneys (civil defense attorneys). This summer, I was awarded the Outstanding Appellate Judge Award for 2016 by the North Carolina Advocates for Justice (plaintiff’s attorneys). Moreover, I have been endorsed by individuals of opposite political parties and organizations that sometimes hold opposing positions to one another. I believe that these awards and endorsements speak to my commitment to treating everyone fairly and to favoring no one.
What do you believe qualifies you to serve on Court of Appeals?
Having served as a Judge on the Court of Appeals since 2006, I have actually done the work of the Court for a substantial enough period of time for my qualifications to do the work to be evaluated. Moreover, I came to the Court with 27 years of experience as a lawyer.
In addition to a strong intellect, fair-minded outlook, and willingness to work hard, I believe that a Judge must be willing to commit to the oath of office taken when sworn in at the Court of Appeals. That is, in pertinent part: to uphold the Constitutions of my Country and my State; to uphold the laws of my State when they are consistent with the Constitutions; to follow the law in every case to reach the result the law requires even when that result is different from my personal beliefs. My record indicates I have faithfully adhered to that oath.
How do you define yourself politically? How does that impact your judicial approach?
I believe that it is inappropriate to define yourself politically in a judicial race. Political bent should not affect the ability to apply the law to the facts or case before you. I am a registered Democrat, but I think that is irrelevant to my ability to perform the work of the Court. I would hope that all judges, regardless of party or politics, apply themselves fairly and without political partisanship to all of their cases.
What do you believe are the three most important qualities a judge must have to be an effective jurist? Which judges, past or present, do you most admire? Why?
Dedication to the rule of law, intellectual ability, strong work ethic, and attention to detail. I am a huge admirer of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she demonstrates all of these qualities as well as strength of character, a fierce independence, and has a great sense of humor.
The INDY’s mission is to help build a more just community in the Triangle. How would your election help further that goal?
I have a record of applying the law fairly to all, which is the heart of justice. My work has earned the endorsements of legal organizations (NCAJ, NC Association of Women Attorneys), the teachers (NC Association of Educators), police and firefighters (Police Benevolent Association, Fraternal Order of Police, Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association), labor groups (AFL-CIO, Teamsters), and community groups (Peoples’ Alliance, Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Equality NC, NCNow, NC Sierra Club, Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and NC Voters for Animal Welfare). I think these endorsements speak volumes about my qualifications and judicial temperament.
What do you think are the three most crucial issues facing the state’s judicial system at this moment? Explain how, if elected, you’d help remedy those issues. And how do you think the Court of Appeals can do to address those issues?
While our system has improved, our state is beleaguered by an issue of unequal access to justice. First, we have record numbers of people living in poverty. Because of the continued cuts to legal aid organizations in North Carolina, fewer residents have access to affordable legal help. Our local court clerks work hard to help people in need, but there are still people being left behind and shut out of the process. Second, we know that there is bias on the basis of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age, religion, and socio-economic status. We must improve until all people are treated the same by every facet of our system. Third, our trial courts have chronically crowded dockets and not enough clerks or Judges. This inevitably increases the costs and time associated with accessing the justice system. Lastly, we must acknowledge the lack of trust in our judicial system in general. We cannot pretend that there is never partisanship or favoritism, but the vast majority of our judges, lawyers, and others in the justice system strive for fairness. The popular perception of the legal profession in the public’s consciousness points to the need for greater education about our courts.
For my part, I can continue to apply the law to the cases before me without preference or bias. However, I must be willing to identify when bias has appeared at some point in the case before it reaches my desk. As a Court of Appeals judge, I can continue to educate people about the important work that the Court of Appeals performs and how it affects their lives. By being a positive mentor to other professionals and educating the public, I hope to improve the negative public perception of lawyers and the judicial system.
Do you think the judicial system is becoming too politicized? Explain. If elected, how would you address any perceptions that politics play a role in judicial decisions?
Absolutely. Making judicial races partisan again has a deleterious effect on our campaigns. This change has re-politicized judicial races and further harmed the reputation of our profession. Now the public sees judges as running for office under the same scheme as politicians. When there is no limit on the amount of money raised and judges are allowed to take money from outside special interest groups, qualifications, experience, and temperament take a back seat. Moreover, the process is susceptible to negative and expensive campaign advertising which erodes the public's trust in a fair, impartial, and independent judiciary
Previously, with public financing, Court of Appeals candidates had to meet a threshold amount to qualify for public financing. This required less time fundraising, and made candidates focus on meeting citizens and educating them about our Court. Now that I must pro-actively fundraise, I am faced with the challenge of asking for financial support from the very professionals who appear before me in Court. Few people other than lawyers and their clients have any reason to know which judges follow the law and apply it fairly. For those reasons, lawyers are the most invested in electing good judges and the most willing to donate.
By changing the rules, our state has allowed politics to become a huge part of judicial races. I will endeavor every day with every case to be as impartial and fair as I have been for the past 10 years on the bench.