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.

Seat 12

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.”

Seat 4

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.

Seat 7

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.”

Seat 13

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.

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