District Court Judge Bill Southern recently addressed the Dobson Woman’s Club during the group’s February meeting. Southern presides over Surry and Stokes counties in the 17B Judicial District.
He opened his presentation with a description of the state courts’ four- level system: District Court with four judges, each serving four-year terms; Superior Court that are trial courts, with two judges serving eight-year terms; and Appellate Courts and NC Supreme Court that review errors of law and have no trials.
In the North Carolina legal system every issue begins at a District Court, he said. In District Court a judge hears the facts and makes a decision; jury trials occur only for low-level felony cases. He said all high-level felons go to Superior Court.
Southern’s cases are split into 40 percent criminal and 60 percent civil cases. Because Surry and Stokes’ counties are predominantly rural, most cases appear on the civil calendar. Domestic cases. such as divorce, child custody, spousal abuse, landlord-tenant, and similar cases, comprise the largest number on the court’s calendar.
The Social Services Department is involved in many cases, especially child custody, the told the gathering, stating that juvenile law has become a particular passion for him. According to the statutes, all decisions must be made “in the best interests of the child.” As a father he knows that many people contribute to the best interests of the child – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, clergy, and more.
Custody cases are difficult, he said. The judge alone makes the decision. Southern explained he has to decide how to create orders. Being a father himself is beneficial in court cases like these. Early in his career he would have been poorly equipped to make good decisions in child custody cases. His life’s experiences have aided him greatly in creating workable orders in the child’s best interests, the judge said.
Southern surprised everyone in the room when he said the U.S. Constitution does not specify the qualifications for a Supreme Court Justice. Anyone can be a Supreme Court Justice. For the past 150 years all Supreme Court Justices have been lawyers, but the Constitution does not stipulate that requirement.
At the District Court level a jury trial may be held on a civil proceeding. Landlord/tenant and contract cases are common. Twelve people drawn at random from the voter registration roles are selected from a field of 50 candidates. The attorneys from both sides interview prospective jurors. A juror can be eliminated from the pool “for cause,” which means 51 percent of the evidence indicates the case would not be fairly tried.
At a criminal trial the state is suing someone. The jury must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the person is guilty. For juries trying to make a decision, to determine “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a difficult concept, he said. The 12 jurors struggle. Their debate is taken seriously, because they are making decisions about prison, life, and death.
Southern noted that juries are interesting and fascinating, and they have existed in western civilization have had juries for more than 1,000 years. In Surry and Stokes counties jury trials are not common; the culture of the counties tends away from jury trials. Jury trials are also expensive. Paying an attorney as a legal representative is a big financial investment. A person must be 18 years of age, the age to vote, to serve on a jury.
Early on in his career Southern said he was advised to “err on the side of helping people.” He has found this always to be the best course of action. He is proud of the work done at the court house. The clerks of court keep him straight, and he knows to take care of them. Sometimes the clerks know more law than the judge, he said. The judge must listen, know the law, and be a neutral party, until all the facts are uncovered. Only after the facts are revealed can the judge make a decision. The judge wears a black robe to indicate neutrality in the case.
Every two years all judges are required to attend continuing judicial education classes for 36 hours. The Judicial College is part of the School of Government in Chapel Hill. In April he will be attending a child custody seminar at which he intends to further refine his skills in making child custody decisions.
In response to a question from the audience about law school and the importance of math in school Southern replied that math is part of a well-rounded education. He uses math in deciding equitable distribution cases for divorce and child support cases.
“Case law” talks about the math involved. Law school requires three years. Year one is a variety of classes, including legal writing, but years two and three involve an application of cases. If a student attends law school in another state, the cases will be applicable to that state and may not be applicable to the state where the new lawyer ends up practicing law.
Southern grew up in Stokes County where his father was a sheriff and his family owned a grain operation. He graduated from UNC—Chapel Hill with a political science major. He told those gathered at the meeting that civic education is a passion for him. He earned his law degree from Texas Southern School of Law. He noted that a law degree is flexible. The law is always changing, because the facts are changing. In order to be a judge you need to have a law degree. He says he learns more every day as a judge.
He has served in the 17B Judicial District Court since 2008. His wife is an attorney for a corporation and says she will only see him in court when he is sworn in as a judge. They are parents of three children.
He spoke to the Dobson Woman’s Club under the auspices of “Celebrate NC Courts.” He invited everyone to visit his court and the court house in Surry County. The public funds the court system through its taxes, he explained. The court house is always open to do the public’s business, and the court room is protected by the Sheriff’s Office. Last year the District Courts’ celebrated their fiftieth anniversary; this year the Appeals Courts are celebrating 50 years.
Southern invited students to apply for summer internships that are available at the court house in Surry County.