Asheville native Jackie Grant is now president of the North Carolina Bar Association. She was inaugurated at the NCBA's annual meeting last month. The A.C. Reynolds High School and Western Carolina University graduate is the first woman attorney from Asheville to serve as president of the NCBA, and only the second African-American woman to hold the position. Grant is a partner and litigator for Roberts & Stevens. She sat down with BPR's Matt Bush to talk about the role the Bar Association plays, and what lawyers can bring to discussions about criminal justice reform and educating the public about the court system.
INTERVIEW EXCERPTS -
On the role of the North Carolina Bar Association - "The Bar Association is the voluntary bar of lawyers. The North Carolina State Bar is the mandatory bar that handles licensing and disciplinary actions with lawyers. The North Carolina Bar Association has over 20-thousand members. We look at proposed legislation, anything that affects the legal system and the judiciary. We may take stands or positions on those bills."
With much of criminal justice reforms focusing on police powers & strategies, as well as sentencing guidelines and recidivism, what can lawyers bring to these discussions - "First, lawyers can champion the changes in laws. They can highlight the issues that maybe the general public is not aware of. Lawyers are able to talk about their experiences, what they observe in the legal system, and where there is room for improvement. The other thing is that lawyers fit in at all levels. At the local level you have public defenders and lawyers who do pro bono work when it comes to criminal defense work. You also have that at the applelate level. You have lawyers doing pro bono work when it comes to expungement of records, or when it comes to navigating people through the legal system. (Lawyers) play a vital role in educating the public and the General Assembly on changes we see that could be helpful to the judicial system."
One thing the Bar Association wants to educate the public about are the six proposed state constitutional amendments that will be on the November ballot, particularly one that shifts the appointment powers for judicial vacancies from the governor to the General Assembly - "The way it's currently done, if there's say a district court or superior court seat that becomes vacant, within that jurisdictional district, the local bar would select a slate of candidates to pass up to the governor. And the governor typically chooses from that list. He or she is not bound by that list but they usually choose from that list. Under the proposed constitutional amendment, the way the bill reads is that local commissions would be established. And the people who would serve on these commissions would be appointed by the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, the governor, and the General Assembly. We don't know now how many of these seats the governor, the General Assembly, and the chief justice (would get to appoint), but it would be 9 member commissions. And these commissions would screen those interested in filling the vacancy. And basically they would determine if this person was qualified. And those who are, those names would be passed on to the General Assembly. The General Assembly would pick two from those names, and then the governor would have to pick from the names given by the General Assembly."
On why the Bar Association does not have an official position on this proposed amendment yet - "We did not take a position for the very reason the bill does not have enough in it. You have to see what the enabling legislation (which would be drafted if voters okay the proposed amendment) is. However we do point out that anytime your talking about a constitutional amendment, that's a serious measure. There are concerns that whenever you are taken to amend the constitution, you don't do that very lightly."
On recent legislation that seeks to inject partisanship back into judicial elections in North Carolina - "For us, the test for any proposed legislation is whether it allows for judicial independence. For us, it is essential when we look at any proposed legislation, that it does not encroach on the judiciary. That it allows the judiciary to be impartial, to decide cases based on the law, to be fair, to be independent, and for it not feel it's subserviant to any branch of the government. Last year, there was a proposed bill that sought to change the judicial districts. And of particular importance for me, was that the initial draft sought to split Buncombe County into two different districts. We're not sure how that would have worked in a single courthouse, and how you were going to have part of the county going to certain judges and the other part of the county going to other judges. Fortunately for us, (the bill) went through several amendments and in the last amendment it dropped (the changes to Buncombe County). It did continue to divide Mecklenburg County."
(DISCLOSURE - Blue Ridge Public Radio receives support from Roberts & Stevens)