Sunday, July 10, 2011

In the Seat of Justice

One of the perks of being a writer is that we get to meet interesting people who do interesting things and who will give you a behind-the-scenes look at really interesting places.

I first met John William Smith when he was a district court judge down in Wilmington through Judge Rebecca Blackmore, who had come to a reading I did with Southern Discomfort, my second Deborah Knott novel. Judge Blackmore invited me to come to her court the next day and she introduced me to Judge Smith and Judge Shelly Holt. When I timidly asked if any of them would be willing to answer legal questions for me, all three volunteered. I still pinch myself for lucking out so fantastically. I could not have written the books I have without them. Through fifteen successive books and several short stories, they have patiently explained the law and courtroom protocols, and they have kept Deborah from making reversible judgments.

Over the years, I have teased them about their temperaments. Together they have helped educate me on the law’s flexibility. If I email the three of them a query, Judge Blackmore will get back to me within an hour or two with her shoot-from-the-hip ruling and an amusing courtroom anecdote to illustrate the point. Judge Holt often replies that evening with “What Becky said” or she will give the answer a slightly different spin. Judge Smith’s answer might not come till the next day, but it would be bolstered with two pages of legal citations.

His careful and measured approach to the law did not go unnoticed. His career has led him from ADA to district court judge to superior court judge and, two years ago, Chief Justice Sarah Parker appointed him to be director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC). (And how cool is it that North Carolina has a female Chief Justice?) The NCAOC is based in a large complex on the western edge of Raleigh and it provides administrative services to help the state's unified court system operate as efficiently and effectively as humanly possible. After the justices, he's one of the most powerful legal figures in the state although he is too modest ever to claim that position.

In addition to overseeing a large and multi-faceted organization, he works closely with our state’s Supreme Court and the General Assembly. Yesterday, he invited me to come down to court across the street from our state capitol for a personal guided tour. I was allowed to go up to the bench. This is what the justices see from their seats:


Too often our public spaces are stripped-down modern, and informality rules. I am comforted to see this stately and formal courtroom where so many of the laws that inform our society are ruled upon and implemented.

Judge Knott has never argued a case here, but it’s not totally unlikely that she will never sit on this bench. After all, I am a fiction writer!

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