Photo, from left to right, top to bottom: Tomakio Gause, Angela Foster, Brian Tomlin, Caroline Pemberton, Gavin Reardon, Kelvin Smith, Michele Lee and Moshera Mills.
Two open seats for district court judge have drawn in four Democratic candidates from across Guilford County who hope to ascend to the bench, while two incumbents fight off challengers for their seats.
Guilford County Democratic voters will see four different seats for district court judge on their ballots for the March 3 primary. District court judges are elected to four year terms and hear civil cases involving less than $25,000 and criminal misdemeanors. They also oversee juvenile court and the magistrates, which handle things like small claims and evictions.
Greensboro attorneys Gavin Reardon and Kelvin Smith are facing off for Seat 12 during the Democratic primaries.
Attorney Gavin Reardon currently works as a partner at Rossabi Law Partners in Greensboro. Both Reardon and Amiel Rossabi represent 10 police officers involved in a 2016 case against Zared Jones, who was represented by attorney Graham Holt.
The case, which involved the police officers confronting a group of young black men, including Jones, in downtown Greensboro, caused public accusations of racial profiling and police brutality at the time. In 2018, an amicus brief to which Triad City Beat is a party, was filed, and petitions for the removal of a gag order which restricts city council members who view police body camera footage from the incident from discussing its contents.
In a phone interview with Triad City Beat, Reardon repeatedly discussed his commitment to social justice as the reasoning for his occupation and run for district court judge.
“For me, the biggest issue at this point in my career is that I want to give back more,” Reardon said. “Social justice issues are the things I’m concerned about the most. I need to get off the sidelines.”
When asked about his involvement in the 2016 case, Reardon responded by saying, “You don’t represent people just because they’re popular.”
Reardon also came to the defense of the officers involved, saying they want the police body-camera footage released, but they don’t want city council to be able to talk about the videos without them being released for all to see.
As for the gag order, which Reardon supported in a brief, he said that he doesn’t agree with the statute that allowed for the gag order to be placed in the first place and said that he “would not have signed a brief that reduced transparency and accountability” but that “there should be privacy for the private citizens as well.”
Reardon also said the decision to represent the police officers pro bono wasn’t his to make and was made by his partner, Rossabi.
Reardon, who mentioned issues such as mandatory fines, pretrial incarceration and implicit bias as reasons for his run, said that if elected, he would work to combat racial disparities in the judicial system. He said he advocates for more organized data to track what kinds of sentences people get so that it is uniform across the board; he also said he will advocate for a racial-disparity scorecard for individual judges.
Reardon’s opponent, Kelvin Smith, noted that while he has less experience than Reardon, he is the better candidate because he works in district court every day.
“Maybe his district court experience was 15 years ago,” Smith said. “My opponent practices on the appellate level. That’s admirable work, however, we’re running in a race for district court, the people’s court and I service them every day between Greensboro and High Point. I am uniquely aware of what goes on.”
Smith has only been practicing law since 2016 but argued that he has the experience needed to ascend to the bench.
“I have the integrity and the confidence to do this job,” Smith said. “It doesn’t take 25 years to understand what happens in district court.”
Smith, who is one of six black candidates in the district court judge races, said it’s important for the bench to have a diverse group of judges who reflect the people that it serves.
“When you see a docket and you see the majority of people that are in our courts, it is African-American men that are facing our system every day,” Smith said. “I think it is important that we have a diverse bench that reflects the people that we serve.”
Smith talked about the lack of trust between many members of the community and the judicial system. He said he hopes to change that by making sure to hear everyone’s side of the story.
“It doesn’t mean that [African-American men] are going to be treated better,” he said. “But I want African-American men to know that the system in Guilford County is fair and your cases will be ruled on fairly. Like they’ll think, I didn’t get what I want, but that judge treated me fairly.”
Reardon, who is white, said that while he believes in the importance of diversity, the bench in Guilford County is already diverse enough.
“We are over two-thirds female and over 50 percent black,” Reardon said. “We are not talking about creating diverse bench because we already have it.
“It’s more about, do people have the experience?” he continued. “The more important thing is getting judges who have experience. I don’t think anyone’s color is a qualification. I’ve got 25-plus years of experience practicing every level of law; he’s got three. There’s no comparison.”
Another candidate who has ties to the 2016 Zared Jones case is Caroline Tomlinson-Pemberton, who is running for Seat 4 against Tomakio Gause in the primary.
Pemberton, who was hit by a car in January, said on Sunday that she is “recovering” and that she’s not letting her accident get in the way of the campaign.
“I’m not in the race for money,” she said. “I’m in this race because I truly believe in the judicial system.”
Pemberton, who has worked as an assistant district attorney for the past 13 years, gave Jones a deferred dismissal on charges of drunk and disorderly conduct and second-degree trespassing from the 2016 case. Rather than give Jones a voluntary dismissal, Pemberton said she opted for the deferred dismissal because the case was set for trial and she believes that “the state had enough evidence to convict Mr. Jones.”
However, Pemberton said she opted for a dismissal because she “wanted to give him another chance.”
Eventually, the charges against Jones were dropped.
“When Mr. Holt handed me the file, he didn’t ask if it was going to be a voluntary dismissal or a deferred dismissal,” Pemberton explained to TCB. “So, I gave him a deferred dismissal and handed the file back to Mr. Holt.”
According to Pemberton, Holt then waited two years to come back to the courts to appeal to the district attorney that the deferred dismissal be stricken.
“I told him that I can’t just strike a deferred dismissal, you have to file a motion for appropriate release,” she said. “But Mr. Holt refused, and he said no. That deferred dismissal had been in the judicial system for two years. And when he realized that he did not pay attention to his client’s case and that he got a deferred dismissal instead of a voluntary dismissal, then he decided to start a campaign against me that I did it in secrecy. But it’s written on the case file, how could it be secret?”
Holt, who was reached by phone on Sunday, said he couldn’t comment on the case. Holt no longer represents Jones. The case file indicates that Pemberton checked off a box for “Deferred dismissal” on May 24, 2017.
Pemberton said she’s running because of her passion for juvenile court and her passion for “breaking the cycle” for those who get caught in the judicial system.
She said she wants to take greater advantage of second-chance rehabilitation programs and make sure juveniles get fair and equal treatment.
“I’m in the courtroom every day,” she said. “Defense attorneys come to court and they’re all over the place, but an assistant district attorney is in the courtroom every day with hundreds of cases. I’ve been complimented on moving cases efficiently and dealing with different clients. You can’t beat that experience; that’s the kind of person you want on the bench.”
Pemberton’s opponent Tomakio Gause, has been running her own private practice for nine years and has been practicing law for 14. She handles civil, family law and criminal cases. In an interview, she said that she wants to prioritize addressing mental health, substance abuse and poverty in the courtroom.
“We have to try to address issues with clients that we’re seeing over and over again,” Gause said. “As an attorney, if my goal is to help you with housing issues or employment issues, I can give you the tools to do that, but as a judge I have more authority. You would have to do it.”
Gause said she’s made it her goal to work with indigent clients — those who cannot pay for an attorney and have one assigned to them by the court system — in order to make sure everyone has a fair chance in court.
“They have the misconception that if you’re a court-appointed attorney, that you’re not going to take any time for my case,” Gause said. “but I’ve made it my goal to make a personal connection with people and to give people a different perspective of what the system looks like.”
Gause said she doesn’t spend much time on advertising, and instead relies on referrals for her clients. She mentioned one case in which she represented a father and argued against the mother for custody of their children. While Gause won sole custody for her client, she said that afterwards, she received referrals from the mother’s side because of the way she handled the case.
“I think she appreciated that I treated her with respect,” Gause said.
District court judge Angela Foster is fighting to remain in her seat this election cycle against challenger Michele Lee.
Foster, who has been in Seat 7 for 12 years, is a certified juvenile judge and said that she’s concerned with family reunification and helping foster children in her capacity as district court judge.
She also talked about the importance of addressing drug use so that children can be reunited with their parents.
“A child is born addicted because a parent was using drugs while pregnant,” she said. “I want to try to get them off drugs. I’m very concerned about that. If I can’t get a parent to stop using those drugs, I can’t reunify that family.”
To combat these issues, Foster said that she tries to refer parents to outpatient therapy or drug re-education programs so that they can continue to see their children, the bond between them is not broken.
In September 2019, Foster was censured by the NC Supreme Court for ordering bailiffs to handcuff a mother and place her in a holding cell while Foster lectured her two teenage children, according to local news reports. The Supreme Court found that Foster engaged in “inappropriate conduct” and failed to “remain patient, dignified and courteous” in a January 2018 hearing.
The case involved two boys who had disobeyed a court mandate by refusing to visit their father over their winter break. Once in court, Foster told the boys that their mother could be jailed over their refusal to see their father, to which they replied that they would rather their mother go to jail. At that point, Foster ordered the bailiff to handcuff their mother and place her in a holding cell.
“It was never my intention to embarrass her,” Foster told TCB, “but it was my intention to show her children that their actions could lead to this. That it’s not the right way to go about that, and you don’t have to like your parent, but you need to give them the opportunity to be your parent. I’m happy to say that these people act like a family unit now. They’ve stopped coming to court. They are visiting their father. If their mother went to jail, they would have gone to live with their father.”
Michele Lee, a senior judicial hearing officer and probate judge in the office of the clerk of superior court, said she’s running for the seat because she wants to change the way people think about the court system.
“The public distrust is very high for the judicial system,” Lee said. “It is extraordinarily problematic. It doesn’t give people the confidence to report crimes or come in as a victim of a witness.”
Lee is a the third generation in her family to practice law. Her father, Michael Lee, and her grandfather, Kenneth Lee, were lawyers as well.
“The law is in my blood,” Lee said.
She said that as a judge, she would listen intently to all who come before her in court.
“I know it can be difficult to do that on the district level because you see so many cases, but you have to remember that each case is an individual case,” she said. “And you have to remember to treat people fairly and give them their dignity. People walk away remembering how you made them feel.”
Lee said that while she bears no personal ill feelings towards Foster, she does feel like the seat needs change.
“It’s problematic in the way that some people perceive Judge Foster,” Lee said. “It is public record some of the things that have happened. I don’t want to speak negatively about her, but the information is out there.
“It comes down to character,” Lee continued. “Who you are on the bench comes from who you are outside of the bench. I will work hard. I would never do the things that would create that sort of public distrust. Your interaction with me would never make you feel like you were disrespected.”
Incumbent Brian Tomlin, who was appointed to fill the seat left open by Judge Lora Cubbage by Gov. Roy Cooper in March 2019, is also fighting to remain in his seat against challenger Moshera Mills.
Tomlin, like many others running for district court judge, said he wants to maintain consistency within the courts and ensure that people feel the system is just and fair.
“I just hope to do my job really well in a way that people feel that they’ve been treated fairly,” he said, “and people think that the results of their case was just.”
A lawyer of 23 years before he ascended to the bench, Tomlin said his array of experience makes him a good judge.
“I think having seen what I’ve seen and done what I’ve done makes me able to cover and handle the things you see as a judge,” he said.
Tomlin’s challenger is a private attorney with 18 years of experience.
Mills said she thought about running 10 years ago but opted to wait until her two kids were older to run for office. She said she’s running to make sure people are “treated fairly and with human dignity and respect.”
Like Reardon, Mills wants a way to track charges so that everyone who comes before a judge gets treated equally.
“There should be some tracking system so the public can hold judicial officials accountable for decisions,” Mills said. “If all things are equal, people should have the same punishments.”
Mills also noted the importance of efficiency within the courtroom, so cases don’t drag on for years and years.
“It’s about managing the docket,” she said. “Whatever court a judge is assigned to, it’s their duty to look at the docket and have some docket management within each individual courtroom. In criminal court, the district attorneys are in charge of calling the cases but in my experience, the most effective judges that are able to clear dockets are the ones that get involved working with personnel in the courtroom in that docket management. Everyone has a different way of doing it, but I personally admire the judges who are there for the docket call.”
Mills said she doesn’t consider herself a politician and just wants to do whatever she can to help her community.
“I think everyone needs to have a voice and I believe that on the bench, I’m the one that can hear all those voices,” she said. “Usually it’s just good people who are going through the worst time in their lives.”
The North Carolina primary takes place on March 3. Visit vt.ncsbe.gov/RegLkup to look up your sample ballot.