Name as it appears on the ballot: Sherri Murrell
Campaign website: www.murrellforjudge.com
Phone number: 919-414-8694
Years lived in the state: 46 years
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’ve spent sixteen of my twenty-two years of law practice as an assistant public defender. In this job I’ve spent some part of nearly every work day in court. I’ve tried many cases in both district and superior court, but I’ve negotiated and resolved even more without trials (most criminal cases are resolved by plea). I believe that crucial aspects of effectively representing clients are not only the ability to honestly evaluate cases based on the facts and the law, but also the ability to adjust for the emotional component that’s present, in some way, in every human conflict. To negotiate the best outcomes for clients, it’s important to be able to foresee the other side’s point of view and propose an outcome that appeals to all parties as fair and reasonable. Likewise, to prepare cases for trial or for sentencing, it’s important to anticipate what anyone, judge or jury, would accept as fair and just. From years of performing this sort of analysis of my cases, I’ve learned to listen and seriously consider the concerns and interests of all parties involved in a case, no matter how much their interests diverge from my clients’, and no matter how much opposing counsel’s point of view differs from my own. By necessity I’ve learned to think and assess human conflict as an impartial observer, which also happens to be the primary task of any courtroom judge. An unexpected benefit of this approach to the law has been the reputation I believe I’ve developed among my colleagues in the bar as an empathetic, reasonable, fair and trustworthy attorney. I believe this reputation has helped my clients in many ways, and that from the bench it will help me to build faith in the legal system.
What do you believe qualifies you to serve as a district court judge?
I have practiced law for twenty-two years, primarily as an attorney defending indigent clients. I’ve also practiced in the private sector and have experience in the areas of family law, estate planning and administration, and real estate. Through this legal experience I’ve developed knowledge in widely varying areas of the law, working on behalf of many different people, from those that are very poor to the wealthy, from the, highly educated to people who haven’t finished high school. I’ve been the advocate of people from vastly different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Through it all I’ve learned how to effectively talk with a wide range of people about concepts of law that are often complex, anti-intuitive, and expressed in a language that is highly specialized and sometimes hard to grasp. But with care and effort, it is possible to make the law seem clear and the workings of the court seem logical and fair.
As a member of the Judicial District 15B Bar, I’ve served as Bar president and vice president. Right now I’m a member of the Chatham County JDEC Committee, a group that addresses issues related to the courthouse and court functioning in Chatham County, and the Chatham County JCPC, the group that makes funding decisions about programs related to the juvenile justice system in Chatham County. I serve as the chair of the Pittsboro Board of Adjustment. The service positions I’ve taken reflect my commitment to the the people of the district and the confidence that my colleagues and community have in me. I look forward to continuing to build that confidence from the bench.
How do you define yourself politically? How does that impact your judicial approach?
I am a progressive who believes that we can and must improve the ways we live together as a community and a democracy. The job of a district court judge is the job of hearing the facts of cases, listening to arguments about the law, and then scrupulously applying the law in decisions. We are a nation of laws; as a progressive I believe that the fair and just upholding of the law, without fear, is one of the basic ways we improve the condition of our communities and our democracy. In some situations the law allows for judicial discretion, and it would be disingenuous of me to say that my own political views would not form some part of a discretionary decision. But my political views are more ethical than ideological, and thus the discretion I would take would be to consider the whole context of all litigants’ lives before making sentencing decisions or rulings in civil cases. There is sometimes a difference between what is allowed under the law and what is ethical and right under the law. I would strive toward the latter.
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?
I believe the three most important qualities a judge must have are the courage to follow the law, the ability to empathize with the people who come before the court, and the temperament to listen fully and respectfully.
Two judges that I have greatly admired are Judge Lowry Betts and Judge Pat DeVine. I admired Judge Betts for his courage to follow the law and make principled decisions even when they were unpopular. I admire Judge DeVine for her ability to actively listen to the concerns of the people appearing in court and render just decisions in a compassionate and thoughtful manner.
The INDY’s mission is to help build a more just community in the Triangle. How would your election help further that goal?
I’ve spent thousands of hours in courtrooms handling my cases. I’ve spent many hours watching other lawyers and judges handling cases as well. One conclusion I’ve drawn from all this observation is that if we’re going to have a judicial system that appears just and fair, and in fact is just and fair, judges must insist the court remain respectful, listen fully and with serious consideration to all parties and their advocates, and make timely decisions. I’ve also learned, as I said above (see #3) that there’s a difference between what is allowed under the law and what is ethical and right under the law. I would strive toward the latter. If I have any wisdom to bring to the bench it’s these things, the product of many years in court. I believe I’ve got the legal experience and education, the personal skills, and the temperament necessary to be that kind of judge.
As a lawyer, I’ve never thought my role in the community stopped at the courthouse door. I’ve always been active in the broader community. In my role as an assistant public defender I’ve worked to ensure that the most vulnerable among us have access to quality legal representation. In the community, I’ve participated in the school system by being a guest reader in both elementary and middle schools and being a guest speaker at my daughters’ schools. I’ve also participated in a mock trial program in Chatham County in which schools bring classes to the courthouse for a tour and the chance to participate in a mock trial. The children hear about each person’s role in the courtroom and then have the chance to play those roles with us.
If elected, I plan to continue to participate both inside the courtroom and out in the community to ensure that people understand their court system, and understand that it is a system for them. I also plan to continue to participate in the community in a way that hopefully enriches the lives of others and helps to bring people together
What do you think are the three most crucial issues facing the state’s judicial system at the moment? Explain how, if elected, you’d help remedy those issues. And how do you think district courts can play a role?
I think the three most crucial issues facing the state’s judicial system are 1) lack of funding, not just for various court affiliated offices, but for public mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and mediation services, 2) treating sixteen and seventeen year olds as adults in criminal court, and 3) the impact of implicit racial bias on the system.
As an assistant public defender, I’ve seen first hand the detrimental effects of under funding in the court system. The public defender’s office, as well as the district attorney’s office, operate under the burden of high caseloads and inadequate staff to assist the lawyers in doing their jobs. It’s been my experience and observation that lawyers spend a great deal of time performing tasks that would ordinarily be considered support functions like filing, copying, sending letters, and fielding routine questions over the phone. In addition, the lack of adequate funding for public mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and mediation programs hurts the entire community and increases the burden on the court system. Many people who end up in court, particularly criminal court and juvenile abuse and neglect court (DSS court) are suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse issues that are not being adequately treated and often not being treated at all. This puts courts in the position of acting as case managers for people struggling with these issues. The court system is not designed to be a treatment management and delivery system, but it seems that more and more frequently that’s the role the court system finds itself filling. If we treated mental health and substance abuse issues as public health issues, making services more accessible before people end up in court, and being more proactive as a community about identifying and serving those in need, I believe we would reduce the number of people in the court system. In our district we’re lucky to have specialty courts (mental health, substance abuse, truancy) that are designed to address these issues, but the resources available to the court are too few: there are not enough providers to which the court can refer mentally ill and substance abuse clients; these providers often suffer from understaffing and high staff turnover. But in some cases it’s worse than just a lack of funding; in some cases we’ve simply lost programs that were beneficial to many court participants, including domestic violence programs designed for abusers, as well as anger management programs. District courts can play a role in solving these issues by continuing to be creative in their use of specialty courts and continuing to speak publicly about the impact of under funding. But until then, courts will need to remain vigilant and creative if we’re to avoid making our jails and prisons into warehousing for the mentally ill and the addicted.
Another crucial issue facing our courts in North Carolina: treating sixteen-year-old and seventeen-year-old offenders as adults. This approach to juvenile crime poses physical and psychological risks to the child and has also proven ineffective. Well-known studies show that sixteen and seventeen year olds prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system are more likely to commit crimes again. There are more services available for children and their families through the juvenile justice system, where these offenders belong. Participation in the juvenile justice system, rather than adult court, improves the chances that children will get the support and treatment they need to stay out of trouble. The district court can play a role in avoiding the loss of children to the adult justice system by by supporting diversion programs in their districts and continuing to speak out about the short-sighted policy that often results in children getting criminal records which can limit their prospects at a very early age.
Finally, I believe we are just starting to really understand that impact of implicit racial bias in all areas of our culture, especially in law enforcement and the judicial system. We cannot afford any bias, implicit or explicit, in our court system. The foundation of our justice system rests on the idea that all people are treated fairly and without regard to immutable characteristics such as race. While I believe that most people in the justice system do their very best to live out these ideals, statistics show that there is an increased likelihood that some racial and ethnic groups will have encounters with law enforcement. Also, there is a correlation between a person’s race and ethnicity and with court outcomes. This shows that we are falling unacceptably and unconscionably short. None of us are immune from bias. We all carry with us the culture we were raised in, the families we grew up in, and our experiences. While I believe that it’s impossible for any of us to be without bias, it is possible for us to become aware of and acknowledge our biases, and try to set them aside when making decisions in court, or at least be aware of those biases and correct for them. All people who work in the justice system should be trained in implicit bias and racism, and the courts should become a safe place to discuss and acknowledge bias and racism. Openness works.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing the district you’re running in?
I think that all of the issues discussed above are issues facing my district and I think all of these issues are important. If pressed, however, I’d say the biggest issue is the lack of funding I addressed above.
Do you think the judicial system is becoming too politicized? Explain.
The North Carolina Constitution requires judges to be chosen by election. Thankfully, most judicial races in North Carolina are currently non-partisan races. Starting in 1996 superior court judges’ races became non-partisan, in 2001 district court judges’ races followed, and finally in 2002, appellate court judges’ races became non-partisan. Though the races remain officially non-partisan, this year the party affiliation of the court of appeals candidates will be shown on the ballots, a move that has increased the politicization of that election, in particular. Our ability as voters to ensure that our courts are filled with qualified jurists becomes compromised when partisan politics are involved in court elections.
Some district courts are beginning to implement misdemeanor diversion program for young and/or first-time offenders. What are your thoughts on such programs?
Diversion programs actually stop young and/or first time offenders from appearing in court at all and allow them the opportunity to atone for their crime before being formally charged. This is important for at least three reasons. First, it requires young people/first offenders to take responsibility for their criminal conduct by requiring that they complete the diversion program. Secondly, it allows young people the opportunity to keep their records clean. In some instances just being charged with a criminal offense hinders people from getting jobs, getting into school, or getting into rental housing, even if the charge is later dismissed. Allowing young people to move forward without the obstacle of a criminal charge on their record is a great benefit to them and the community, which has an interest in seeing people educated, working, and living safe and stable lives. Finally, keeping young people from coming to court again and again makes it less likely they will miss work or school. Becoming normalized to the culture and process of court increases the likelihood that they lose their jobs or do poorly in school and eventually quit.
Bails are often issued to ensure that someone suspected of a crime shows up to court. But in some cases the bail amount is so high that the accused—especially those with lower incomes—cannot afford it and thus will remain behind bars without being convicted. How can district courts work to ensure a fair bail system for everyone?
The North Carolina statutes require that judicial officials must impose a written promise to appear, an unsecured bond, or release defendants to the custody of a designated person or organization that can supervise them unless the judge determines that this release “...will not reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance in court, will pose a danger of injury to any person, or is likely to result in the destruction of evidence, subornation of perjury, or intimidation of potential witnesses.” NC Gen Stat. 15A-534(b). District courts are on the front lines of bond motions/bond settings. In their role, district court judges preside over most felony first appearances and nearly all bond motions for those charged with misdemeanors awaiting trial in jail. I believe district courts can work to ensure a fair bail procedure by following the law that leans in favor of releasing those accused of crimes unless they are a flight risk, pose a danger to someone, or pose a danger to the integrity of the case. In our district we have bond guidelines that were promulgated by the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge which comply with the mandates of this statute. One aspect of ensuring a fair bonds means developing some consistency in the setting of bonds, and I believe this can be done by following the statute and using the bond guidelines.
What are your thoughts on implementing mental-health treatment courts across the state?
We have mental-health treatment courts in our district and they’re great. The treatment courts are staffed by a district court judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, probation officer, and mental health professionals. The mental health professionals that work in our treatment courts are wonderful and have been invaluable in assessing potential participants and then acting as liaisons between the participants and service providers. Many of our mental health court participants are overwhelmed, not just because of mental illness, but also because of the pressures and difficulties of poverty. Receiving help to find the appropriate service provider(s), and the consistency and responsibility required in the process of checking in with the court team every month, provide both motivation and support. For these courts to be most effective, it is imperative that there be consistent, reliable, and quality mental health services available in the community for those who don’t have the financial means to pay for services. These courts are/will be limited by the quality and availability of mental health services.