Nancy E. Gordon | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Nancy E. Gordon 

Candidate for Durham District Judge


Name as it Appears on the Ballot: NANCY E. GORDON



Date of Birth: NOVEMBER 6, 1954



Years lived in Durham: 32

Home Phone: 919-493-5070


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?

We are prosecuting and incarcerating the mentally ill and the drug addicted at an alarming rate because our community doesn’t know what to do with them. Incarceration does not result in a healthier post-incarceration individual and it’s not a smart use of taxpayer money. The State of North Carolina should fully fund therapeutic courts including Adult and Family Drug Treatment Courts. These are intensively supervised criminal courts, which, instead of incarcerating people, change behaviors through accountability, sanctions and incentives. We need to fund a Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) to accomplish the same kind of result for people who have sacrificed and served our country. At present, I am leading the effort to get a Veterans Treatment Court in Durham and on March 31 will be visiting with a Mentor Veterans Treatment Court in Rochester, NY (paid for courtesy of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals). It’s my hope to have a VTC by Veterans Day 2014.

An increased effort for Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for local law enforcement, particularly those who staff our courthouse and updates in domestic violence would go a long way toward keeping the public safer in the courthouse. CIT training is aimed at teaching law enforcement to defuse escalating situations with mentally ill people.

Our judicial system lacks resources, including a serious lack of IT integration, resources and planning. Although the court system is a co-equal branch of government, the court system’s budget is controlled by the General Assembly. The NCGA not only determines the total sum of money allocated to the court system, our legislators determine how the Administrative Office of Courts allocates those resources within the court system. Few of the people in the NCGA are trial lawyers and that results in a lack of basic understanding by those decision-makers of how our courts function and are constitutionally required to function. Our efficiency is seriously hindered by the lack of hardware, software and human resources. In 2013, the judicial system was allocated a smaller percentage of the state budget than before. Our legislators seem to think that judges only work when they are on the bench—ignoring the time we spend writing opinions, reading law, attending meetings and the like. Keeping our NCGA mindful of and informed about the needs of our court system and the importance of the judicial system to our citizenry is a top priority.

2. What qualifies you to serve?

I have a passion for my job and I work hard. I decide the cases that come before me independently, impartially and promptly. Each day I work to be a better judge than the day before. I am mindful of the need for professionalism from the bench, and for meaningful and fair access to our justice system. I stay current on the law, participate in community activities and am active in several judicial and bar association groups.

My qualifications consist of 26 years in the private practice of law and 8 years on the Durham District Court bench. My credentials are unparalleled in my race. I am the only District Court judge in Durham and the only candidate with a Board Certification (my specialization is in Family Law).

3. How do you define yourself politically? How does that impact your judicial approach?

I work very hard to leave my personal political, spiritual and philosophical beliefs at the courthouse door. It is undeniable that my compassion for people and children, my ethic of hard work, belief in fairness and justice spring, at least in part, from my social justice and religious values. My personal political views are personal and not part of my judging in a courtroom. It is fair to say that my personal views are inclusive, not exclusive. Again, I think that family is fundamental to everything- our work ethic, our sense of justice, an individual’s self esteem and well being, and one’s success and failure.

4. FOR INCUMBENTS: What have been your most important decisions in your current capacity?

The most important decisions I’ve made are in child custody cases. Because of prohibitions about discussing ongoing cases, I am limited in cases I can talk about with specificity. The two cases I describe here are exceptions because at least one of the parties is deceased so the case is closed and won’t be reopened.

I was the first judge to preside over the child custody dispute between Derek Walker and the mother of his son, Ethan. Derek was the young man who was shot and killed on the CCB Plaza in Durham this past year. When the litigation started, Ethan was an infant. Derek was selfrepresented; he came into court in a suit or in his work uniform; he was unfailingly polite and respectful to the Court and to Ethan’s mother. It was fairly clear from early in the case that the mother didn’t want Derek in Ethan’s life and that Derek was equally determined to be a father (in the best meanings of that word) to Ethan. We started with visits that were in blocks of 2-3 hours several days a week. That shortly progressed to overnight visitation and finally to shared legal custody and equally shared parenting time. Derek was a devoted Dad. I was struck by the repeated efforts made by Ethan’s mother and maternal grandfather to put obstacles in the path of Derek’s parenting of Ethan.

When I began practicing family law in 1982, fathers didn’t often seek child custody. Over the past 30 years, the family and the roles of parents has changed. Now fathers want to parent and, in some cases, make the choice to be a stay at home parent. Mothers and fathers – even different people in parenting roles--bring different things to their children- one example is that often a father will toss a baby in the air making him scream with delight; most mothers wouldn’t dream of doing that and instead shelter their babies from risks. There’s a role for all of those things in a child’s life and development. And they are equally important. I was beyond sad to learn about Derek’s situation the day he died, particularly since he said that he was motivated by the efforts of Ethan’s mother to keep him from his son. I wasn’t in domestic relations court at that time. The echoes of his distress, the recollection of Derek’s devotion to Ethan and Derek’s ability to balance making a life for himself and his son will always be with me. I keep his thank you note, with a picture of him and Ethan, in my office. Derek made it so easy to respect him as a person and young man—it brought out the best in my judicial temperament.

Another case that challenged me was Snyder v. Giordano, also a child custody case. Mr. Snyder sued his wife for custody of their children. It was a complicated and lengthy trial with two excellent trial lawyers. My decision is commemorated in a 27-page opinion. I was surprised when the decision in this case went viral. I learned that Ms. Giordano had undertaken a public relations effort to lionize her case when I saw an article in a UK publication. Giordano’s viewpoint of the case was covered world wide in publications from the Durham Herald to Time Magazine to MS Magazine. Giordano was interviewed on the Today Show, Dr. Drew and Anderson Cooper. Her take was that my decision was based on the fact that she had breast cancer. She rallied support with a Facebook page and online petitions that exist to this day. I remember the day my mother called to say that her “bridge ladies” were talking about the case.

Because of the Judicial Canons I couldn’t comment on the case even though I felt strongly that my ruling and the facts of the case were being misrepresented. I received many, many very ugly emails, was the subject of petitions and blogs calling for my removal and still had to maintain the dignity of the court when I entertained motions concerning the appeal. I was lucky when the Judicial Response Committee, through former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, communicated with the Anderson Cooper show defending my decision and characterizing my opinion as one of the best he’d ever read. I found dealing with the public scrutiny, which I thought was unfair, challenging. It was very, very difficult not to comment or get angry in public about the case because the litigation was ongoing and because the children deserve privacy.

Since the decision in June 2011, Ms. Giordano has, unfortunately, died. Nevertheless, the online presence and other publicity dominates my history if you Google me. I am gratified to hear that the children are doing well with their dad in Chicago. I am also gratified that Snyder’s lawyer (Laurel Solomon) and Giordano’s lawyer (Bill Cotter) are both supporting my reelection efforts.

I can think of many more family law cases that I think demonstrate both my ability and my temperament in court. For the entire time that I’ve served in District Court, I’ve been in one or the other Family Court courtroom. Most of our judges find these cases too complex, or too messy or too difficult or too “something” to handle and they avoid serving in these courts. For the first 18 months on the bench, I found being in domestic relations court both gratifying and painful: Gratifying because I had the opportunity to use my experience and knowledge of the law and families in a way that, I believe, benefitted families and children; painful because it was hard for me to find my footing in a courtroom where I had been an advocate and, with many of the attorneys who appeared before me, an adversary. I used that time to work on patience (not always my strong point), letting go the advocacy role I had played for 26 years and being respectful of the parties in the courtroom. As a result of my efforts in Durham’s family courts, families and children have the opportunity to have cases heard by a judge who wants to be in that courtroom, their cases are decided efficiently and promptly, they are heard by a judge who is willing to stay current on the complex law in the area and a judge who works hard every day to make sure that all of the sides of those highly contested cases is heard.

5. FOR CHALLENGERS: What decisions has the incumbent made that you most disagree with?

6. What do you feel was the U.S. Supreme Court's most important recent decision? Did you agree with the majority?

The most important case in the 2013 Term pipeline is McCutcheon v. FEC where the issues are whether limits on biennial campaign contributions to non-candidate committees are unconstitutional. With the floodgates already open in Citizens United, the McCutcheon case is important to provide some measure of protection against the elitist privatization of politics. McCutcheon has not yet been decided.

Going back to the 2012 Term, the most important case is U.S. v. Windsor . In a 5-4 decision, the Court’s majority declared DOMA unconstitutional. This case is legally and culturally significant and I heartily agree with the reasoning of the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy.

6. Have you ever pled guilty or no contest to any criminal charge other than a minor traffic offense? Please explain.


7. 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.

The importance of an independent judiciary is one that is not always popular; it is, however, constitutionally mandated and critical to our democracy. I know that in polls, the public indicates they want the right to vote for judges, but the drop off in the number of voters between legislative or executive offices and judges is very high. Some suggest that judges who are unwilling to take public positions on political or social issues are “activist judges” secretly waiting to impose their personal judgments and biases on those persons who come into their courtrooms. In 2012 millions of dollars from partisan PACs and political parties flowed into the election of NC appellate judges. It’s wrong to bring politics into the courtroom. If America’s judiciary is to remain healthy, vigorously autonomous, and able to perform its constitutional functions without improper influences, it must be immune to attacks and financing designed to influence judicial decision-making.

I suggest that judicial candidates should avoid making the types of statements that are common in campaigns for legislative or executive offices. Making commitments to voters about the policies one will pursue in office is a common feature of elections to executive or legislative office. Judges do not represent any constituency—if we did, we couldn’t be impartial or neutral. I would strongly support bringing back public financing for our appellate branch and exploring expansion of that to our trial benches. An appearance of something not quite right occurs when judges solicit lawyers for campaign contributions and endorsements. Our decisions are subject to review and criticism and we must be prepared to take the criticism, particularly constructive criticism, with humility. But we can’t sell out or fail to make the hard or unpopular decisions simply to avoid criticism.

8. 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?

Youth of color are overrepresented at nearly every point of contact with the juvenile justice system. Disproportionate minority contact, which is clearly obvious in our court here in Durham, is alarming because it has been persistent over time. Statistics indicate that minority youth are more likely to be incarcerated than white youth. In North Carolina, we compound this disproportionate minority representation problem by charging 16-18 year olds as adults.

I’d like to see more cultural bias training for everyone in the juvenile justice (actually the whole court) system. It’s important to ensure that our bench is as impartial and resistant to bias as it can be. I’d like to see community efforts to strengthen family as sound and strong families are essential to keeping kids out of the school to prison pipeline. And diverting first offenders with non-violent crimes when they are juveniles and through age 18 is another important factor in keeping youth in school and working.

9. What do think the priorities should be for Durham law enforcement?

Our police force and our sheriff’s department operate independently from each other. More camaraderie and less competition would be a good thing for all of our law enforcement.

I don’t know the truth or falsity of the allegations of racial profiling by our policemen. The allegations are seriously troubling. Even more concerning is being in first appearance court in the jail and seeing the young black men, one after another, sitting there- some charged with serious crimes and others with minor offenses like possession of small quantities of marijuana. There are innovative programs that have worked in jurisdictions similar to Durham, such as the programs described by David Kennedy in Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship.

As I said above, even more of our officers should be certified in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). CIT training is aimed at teaching law enforcement to defuse escalating situations with mentally ill people.

10. What additional resources would you like to see implemented for defendants? Is there a need for more diversion courts or sentencing services?

Please see answer to Question 11.

11. Many people complain that the criminal justice system is clogged with defendants suffering from mental illnesses. How would you like to see this problem addressed?

I support alternatives to incarceration; I preside over the Durham Adult Drug Treatment Court. We are incarcerating the mentally ill and the drug addicted because we don’t know what to do with them. Incarceration does not result in a healthier post-incarceration individual and it’s not a smart use of taxpayer money. The State of North Carolina should fully fund therapeutic courts including Adult and Family Drug Treatment Courts. These are intensively supervised criminal courts that, instead of incarcerating people, change behaviors through accountability, sanctions and incentives. We need to fund a Veterans Treatment Court to accomplish the same kind of result for people who have sacrificed and served our country. In Durham we have a Community Life court to try to connect the homeless who are charged with soliciting alms and similar misdemeanors to services that could change their behaviors and their lives. If one is mentally ill when he/she is incarcerated, that illness will still persist when he/she is released; it’s critical that we treat the mentally ill and addicted, not incarcerate them.

12. Durham Public School suspensions are on the rise, and many people worry about the so-called “school to prison pipeline.” Can anything be done to remedy the problem on the judicial side of things?

Our schools need to do a better job with detentions and suspensions- that’s the beginning of the pipeline. Truancy courts can be useful and they should be expanded into K-3. Concentrating on our elementary school children would be a step toward keeping the families of truant children engaged so that the commitment to matriculating through high school is maintained.

In Durham, we are starting an innovative pilot program for diverting 16 and 17 year olds with minor and nonviolent offenses so that they might avoid a criminal charge and a criminal conviction. There is a known connection between criminal charges and convictions and problems with such things as education, employment and housing. We need to encourage the General Assembly to step up and raise the age of minority. Family drug treatment courts, which the legislature unfunded in 2011, were a successful effort to support and foster strong families by helping parents deal with their addictions, mental health challenges, educational and job challenges; strong families are fundamental to keeping kids out of the pipeline. Finally, it goes without saying, we need to educate our children, make sure their needs including food and shelter are met and provide community services for those children who need them.

13. Persistent domestic violence calls-for-service have befuddled law enforcement, women’s advocates and criminal justice officials across the state. What role can you play to help the situation?

Many individuals seek redress under our domestic violence (DV)statutes ( aka Chapter 50B), and under Chapter 50C, because they can’t afford the filing fees charged in domestic relations court or because they think they will get a quick-turnaround of their case. Some seek redress in these courts because there are short notice times for trial dates after the defending party is served with papers. Still others want custody and believe that it’s easier to obtain custody or sole possession of a residence in our domestic violence courts. I take it that your question is raising the concern of many who feel that our DV laws are being abused and that leads to a high volume of unwarranted calls to law enforcement and large court dockets.

Battering and domestic violence is a serious issue. I worked with the now-defunct Coalition for Battered Women as an advocate many years ago. When I’m in DV court, it appears to me that sometimes, to save money, parties come to DV court without lawyers, they have fairly summary hearings, or they don’t appear, or they dismiss the charges. Some of this is driven by a desire to get an advantage, do it quickly and do so for less cost. Some is driven by the dynamics of unmarried people’s relationships that sour, and, absent claims about children, those parties have no access to our divorce courts or our matrimonial laws. On the other hand, dismissal of DV charges is completely consistent with situations where one party is a victim of domestic violence and she or he is intimidated into dismissing a case or simply loses the nerve to follow through; there’s evidence that it may take some victims several attempts before they follow through with court process.

There is also a group of people who have contacted law enforcement for help because of a problematic interaction and they tell the court that it was law enforcement that told them to take out a complaint under 50B or 50C. The latter are a particularly troubling phenomenon as these cases are often family, neighbor or workplace disputes that come into the system because law enforcement can’t diffuse the animosity so they pass the case onto the court system.

My impression is that we have a lot of families under stress. When that stress results in an altercation, verbal or physical, people call the police or come to the courthouse looking for help. They want a resolution of their dispute and they think the place they can get help is the court system. Domestic violence is a very frightening syndrome and discerning which cases are truly DV is complicated by many factors. I used to keep two 50B complaints on the bulletin board in my office: in one, where the allegations were very matter-of-fact, the victim was killed and in the other, although the allegations were scary, she wasn’t. I had those complaints there to remind me that the inquiry in DV cases must be handled cautiously. There is another side to DV which is when the case lacks merit and the partner who is wrongfully accused, taken out of his or her home, often required to put up bail, only to have the situation resolve when the other partner decides not to pursue the claim. Charges of DV leave people with a charge of a violent crime that can eliminate options for that person: access to military service, lease opportunities, school scholarships, etc.

In Durham we have a “no drop” policy where the district attorney’s office doesn’t dismiss cases simply because the victim says he or she doesn’t want to prosecute. That’s a double-edged sword. We need trained and discerning advocates, law enforcement and judges.

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