Chief Judge Donna Stroud Leading N.C. Court of Appeals

Chief Judge Donna Stroud officialJudge Donna Stroud was sworn in as chief judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals on Jan. 1, 2021. A native of Kinston, she is a graduate of Campbell University (B.A.), Campbell Law School (J.D.) and Duke University School of Law (LL.M.) After 16 years in private practice she became a District Court judge in Wake County. Chief Judge Stroud was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2006 and re-elected without opposition in 2014. She has been an active member of the North Carolina Bar Association throughout her career, but her involvement with the NCBA stretches even further. In 1982, as a senior at Kinston High School, she won the first essay contest conducted by the NCBA Young Lawyers Division in conjunction with its Law Day celebration. She participated in the following interview on Jan. 27.

What was your initial reaction to being appointed chief judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and how did that appointment come about?

I was very pleased and honored. Obviously, 2020 was a very unusual year in many ways, but since I would be the senior judge we had assumed I would be the next chief. I had been preparing during the last year because Chief Judge Linda McGee was retiring, but I did not know for sure if I would be appointed because the chief justice makes that decision and the results of that election were delayed.

Chief Judge Donna Stroud Certificates of Designation

Chief Judge Donna Stroud enjoys the distinction of being designated by two chief justices.

Chief Justice Beasley reached out to me in December. It was after the election when the results were still undetermined, and we didn’t really know what was going to happen or when. Here at the Court of Appeals at end of the year, we were all working just as hard as we could trying to get our opinions done – which we managed to do – and again at that point the election is still up in the air. Chief Justice Beasley let me know that she would be appointing me as chief judge. And very soon after that, the election was resolved – they had finished the recounts  – and she had decided to concede.

I also talked to Chief Justice Newby, and he was in agreement with that appointment, and then he swore me in on January 1st. It was an unusual situation because we had two chief justices involved in my appointment. With 2020 being such a chaotic and divisive year in many ways, I was honored and glad that I had the support of both chief justices. It made the appointment extra special.

Chief Judge Donna Stroud Swearing In

Chief Judge Donna Stroud is sworn in by Chief Justice Paul Newby as her husband, J. Wilson Stroud, holds the Bible.

How was it that you were sworn in as chief judge in Carteret County?

Chief Justice Newby got sworn in on January 1st (shortly after midnight) and they had planned to go down to Carteret County very early to swear in a group of local judges and Judge Jefferson Griffin on our court. We were trying to figure out where we could do my swearing in because Chief Justice Newby had to go there and then several other places. Our other new judges on this court were being sworn in around the state. You cannot be everywhere at once, so I went to Carteret County to join in that event and be sworn in as Chief Judge.

What are your initial thoughts and reactions as you assume the duties of chief judge?

We have a lot of special challenges this year, as everyone does with the pandemic and all the issues in 2020, aside from our normal court work of dealing with calendars and opinions. And we have five new judges, which as far as I can tell is the largest percentage of the court turning over at one time since it was created. Four of our new judges were trial judges and all of our new judges are very experienced, including Judge Jackson, the only new judge who has not previously served on the trial bench, as he has served in the legislature and practiced law for many years.

The way it has worked in the past at the Court of Appeals is normally we have one or two new judges, and we don’t have a formal training program. Normally the way it would happen, and the way it happened for me, is that you would run down the hall and talk to people, ask questions, and learn from everybody here. I had (former Clerk of Court) Frank Dail next door to my office and he knew everything there was to know about the Court of Appeals. That is how we had our “orientation” before COVID-19.

Now, with most people working remotely, even if a new judge is here working, there may be no one else in the office. Yes, you can call or do a video conference, but most people are just not going to ask the type of questions you would ask if we were all here, or do it as frequently, and we were concerned about that. So we had an orientation session for the new judges, and a lot of our other judges participated in it. Our judges presented on different topics; it was basically a CJE (continuing judicial education) for our new judges, but I think we all learned a lot.  Not all 15 members participated because of time and limitations of space and distance. I would have loved to have had all 15 here, which we would have done in normal circumstances.

Campbell Law School graciously allowed us to use one of their rooms. I knew Campbell was set up very well for pandemic restrictions because I teach there. We used one of their nice big classrooms, so our “students” were all spread out as were the other judges who were participating and doing presentations. Some came in person and some judges participated on video. That’s another great thing about Campbell because they have the room set up for remote participation. I told the new judges that we probably raised more questions than we answered, but when you are starting out you may not even know what to ask. We went over our procedures and how we do things – opinion writing and the ways we manage chambers, especially now that we have the in-person model and the remote model. Now we pretty much have everybody doing a combination. We have some judges who have worked remotely even before the pandemic and others who prefer working in person. We talked about ways to do that and gave them some ideas, and they can decide what works best for them. It was a very good session. We have a very collegial court, which is very important, but it is more difficult to maintain collegiality when everybody is spread out.  Maintaining our collegiality is important and we have been talking about how to do that, especially in the current environment.

Given the duration of the pandemic, have you now gotten used to hearing arguments and conducting business in the “new normal?”

Like everybody, you have to get used to it whether you like it or not. We have been able to do our arguments and it works out; obviously it is much easier to use remote options in the appellate court than in the trial courts. I believe many attorneys and judges, just like in any other context, think in-person arguments are better. At some point we will be having arguments in person again; I don’t know when but it will happen. In the future I believe remote arguments will remain as an option. For example, if we have bad weather, snow and ice, if attorneys want to argue and they want to do it remotely, it is a good option to get their case heard. Or if the attorney does not want to travel six or seven hours to come to Raleigh – these are things we are considering since we have a

remote option we can use. But we are also thinking about what happens if a party on one side feels strongly about being in person, and the party on the other side wants to argue remotely. I think remote arguments will remain as an option, but we have to determine how to do that fairly. Some attorneys would rather get a case done sooner with a remote argument, and others would rather wait.

Working remotely has not impaired our ability to get our opinions done. Reading, research, and writing are all things we have done online for years. We are a statewide court, with some judges farther east and some judges farther west, so it is not a new thing for our judges to do writing and research remotely, although most of our judges who live outside this area have typically spent a substantial part of their time in chambers in Raleigh.

You have always been someone who would be considered tech savvy. Do you think this has helped you work through the challenges and changes brought about by the pandemic?

That is probably true. We have some of our judges who are very tech savvy – Judge Dietz is definitely our leader in that regard. For judges nowadays, pretty much everyone is used to using a computer and doing things remotely. And yes, I have been pushing for increasing the court’s move into the digital world for a long time.

When I became a District Court judge in 2004, I took my notes on a laptop because not many people, including me, can read my writing. I would type my notes so I could read them and find them. But the laptop was not connected to a network where I could save them. So I went to the IT person and told him that I know there is a network with the big computers on it, and I need my laptop connected so I can save orders and notes on it. And he looked a little surprised, and said, “I don’t know. No judge has ever asked me that.” So he checked and came back and said “Yes, we can do that.” He took my laptop, installed some software, but when I got it back nothing was saved. So I asked if the documents were saved on the network, and he said, “No, I reimaged your hard drive.” Fortunately, I had emailed my notes and orders in progress to myself as a backup on  all but two cases. It was amazing to me that in 2004 I may have been the first judge in Wake County to use the network, especially since Wake County is pretty technologically advanced. But I have been using my computer to take notes since I was using my Tandy Model 4P from Radio Shack.

What does it mean to you to succeed Chief Judge Linda McGee, with whom you worked for so many years?

Chief Judge McGee was a wonderful chief. She did a lot for our court, encouraging our collegiality and giving everybody an opportunity to participate. Both of the chiefs I served with, John Martin and Linda McGee, were extremely encouraging and so helpful. They had different styles as chief judge but both were great to work with. I only hope I can live up to the high standards that they set.

What was it like holding investitures for five new judges in the midst of a pandemic?

That was harder than you might think. Fortunately we had the example to follow from the Supreme Court’s online investitures. Normally the judges being sworn in would handle most of the arrangements themselves. I compare it to a small wedding, where they are in charge of the guest list, the dress, the invitations and the thank you notes. This year, with eight new justices and judges to be sworn in, if both appellate courts had done the usual in-person events, January would have been a very busy month, but our usual events were just not possible. Generally all of the judges would be involved – it would have taken a lot of time for everyone. The online investitures did allow us to do the event safely and for all five new judges in a reasonable time, coordinating all the pieces of it on Webex. The AOC videographers did a great job on the video and our IT people here helped coordinate everything. We just had to put the information together about the judges and get everyone organized to do the presentation smoothly

With all of the new judges, that also means the court has lost a great deal of experience.

This court has always been very fortunate to have great judges who always work really well together. Elections are just a very difficult time for people involved in the court in a lot of ways. It is sad to see people go and to lose the benefit of their experience on and off the court but we are also pleased to have new people here. It is a very bittersweet time.

One of the great things about the Court of Appeals is that the judges have a broad range of experience in the law. Nobody has done everything; there will always be an area that a judge has not had experience in. But there is usually someone who has. Even though our judges sit in panels of three, if we have a question there is someone who has worked in a particular area we can talk to and get pointed in the right direction, ask questions, and get it right. I was a District Court judge, for instance, and that is useful since many appeals come from the District Courts. We have so much that comes from Juvenile Court, and at least two of our judges were Juvenile Court judges. And we have other judges who were Superior Court judges and others who have experience in other areas, which is helpful for all of us.

What is the biggest difference in your role on the court now that you are serving as chief judge?

The chief judge deals with many administrative issues. I have to consider the building, computers, human resources, different offices, our court calendars, and making sure that everyone has what they need and everything is operating correctly. Those are some of the chief judge’s duties that I knew about coming into this role. Our predecessors have done a great job, but we continue to review all of these things to find areas we can improve. And the pandemic has changed this role some, as the changes we have had to do on a temporary basis provide an opportunity to reconsider how we do things going forward. It has helped push us forward on some of the other changes that would be good to have, and not just for this court.

For example, I am also Chair of the Chief Justice’s Rules Advisory Committee, and we have been working on rule changes needed for e-filing for a couple of years. At some point the new statewide electronic filing system is going to extend to the appellate courts. I believe our court was the first in the nation to have e-filing, so we were cutting-edge in the 1990s, but we did not expand it. But now it is expanding to the trial courts and eventually it will come here, which is exciting. We can use the experiences from the pandemic as an opportunity to see how we might do things differently and better in the future.

What do you think some of the greatest challenges will be as we move out of the pandemic?

The longer it goes on the more issues remote proceedings raise. One of the things I was thinking about during the orientation with new judges was with remote proceedings, I worry about the socialization and the education of new attorneys. When you first start practicing law, you learn by siting in the courtroom and waiting. You wait and watch how other attorneys are doing things, and how judges do things. You watch an attorney and say, “That is a good idea.” Or you watch other attorneys doing things and say, “I am never going to do that!”

Now, sure you can have your hearing remotely, but the only case that attorney is hearing is their own. You could watch other cases online but you cannot bill hours for that, so attorneys are losing that opportunity to learn. The more I think about it, there was so much you could learn just sitting there for 15 minutes, and you can also talk to attorneys or ask the clerk about something. Our newest attorneys are not getting a chance to do that, and they are missing out on so much that is not really measurable –

and they probably don’t even realize this. It is hard to quantify, but I cannot imagine learning to be a good lawyer without sitting there in court and watching. And the same would apply to attorneys who practice transactional law and never go to court – those new attorneys also have much less opportunity to interact with and learn from others.

How much will you be working with Chief Justice Newby?

We have talked several times in this short time since we have taken on our new roles, looking at various areas and making sure we know all the things that need to be taken care of, and we will continue to do this. Chief Justice Newby wants to help this court in any way he can. I went to my first meeting of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism yesterday, and Chief Justice Newby was talking about the issues the commission is looking at and things the court is looking at. We are looking at what we have learned, especially in the past year, and where we can improve things. We also know we have a big challenge coming for the trial courts, which are already facing a huge challenge from dealing with the pandemic. There will be a pent-up demand for some cases that are already happening and some things that are not, like jury trials. And the cases that are not getting tried are probably the larger cases, the more serious cases that take longer and are more difficult. The complex cases that will take more court time are building up, so where you might have one or two big felony cases, now you might have three to four times as many, and those are going to have to work their way through the system. We have to consider the complexity of the case backlog as well as the basic numbers.

I am also on the Family Court Advisory Commission, and I was a Family Court judge. We know the reports to DSS of child abuse and neglect are down, but I think it is safe to assume the actual incidence of neglect and abuse are up, with people losing their jobs and dealing with the pandemic. The teachers and doctors and coaches who normally see children and would be the source of reports are not seeing them. We know that abuse is going on, and if children were in school or participating in usual activities, someone may notice a problem. I think those are going to be the most terrible situations as children come back to where they can be seen by doctors and teachers and we try to deal with those abuse and neglect cases.

There are a lot of other areas too, such as coronavirus litigation, that will be coming to our courts. We’re thinking about how we prepare and make sure we can deal with all these cases when they come. I have always thought of the courts as society’s emergency room. Nobody wants to go to the emergency room, but if you have to go, you want the doctors to be there and you want to be treated reasonably soon. People who come to court are generally in some sort of trouble. Our emergency rooms, the medical ones and the legal ones, have to work to triage the cases coming in and to deal with them as soon as possible. As the medical emergency rooms work to remain open, our legal emergency rooms – the trial courts – are also having to learn how to deal with this and be accessible going forward.

Chief Judge Stroud Law Day Essay Contest

Then and now, Chief Judge Donna Stroud and the plaque she received for winning the first Law Day Essay Contest in 1982.

As an active member, how has your involvement with the North Carolina Bar Association enhanced your career and your work as a judge?

Certainly the Bar Association has been helpful in my work and for our Court. The committees and groups I have been involved with give opportunities to learn, and not just with substantive areas of law. One of the really important things that it does for judges, especially on the appellate level where we don’t see attorneys in the courtroom on a daily basis, is let us know what types of problems attorneys are having out there in the real world of practice. It is easy to sit up here in chambers being removed from the day-to-day stuff that lawyers and people in court have to deal with. The Bar Association helps keep us in touch with what attorneys are experiencing, especially now that they are working under new rules and procedures. And everything impacts attorneys differently around the state. What attorneys are experiencing in Raleigh and Charlotte may be entirely different than what they are experiencing in Murphy and Manteo. The Bar Association gives us an opportunity to hear from people from all over the state. We’re up here in Raleigh, and I love reading and writing – I could do it all day. But we have to stay in touch with the people of North Carolina because we work for them.

Please provide us with your closing thoughts.

I am fortunate that we have around and available for consultation several prior chief judges. Working as Chief Judge has been challenging and more fun than I would have anticipated. I enjoy learning how the pieces come together and how to make the pieces work together. The support I have gotten from our judges has been wonderful across the political spectrum. This is a collegial court and everyone works well together. We take that for granted in North Carolina, but when I’ve been to conferences with judges from other states, I’ve heard scary stories about courts that are not collegial at all. A collegial court is not a given, so we are very fortunate here to have a long tradition of collegiality and we intend to continue that tradition.

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.

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