By: JORDAN MEADOWS, STAFF WRITER
As she gears up for her upcoming election bid in 2024 for the North Carolina Court of Appeals, Judge Carolyn J. Thompson’s journey unfolds as a testament to her commitment to the law, community service, and the pursuit of fairness.
Thompson’s legal odyssey began with a solid academic foundation, attending Hampton University and the North Carolina Central University School of Law. Admitted to the North Carolina Bar in 1996, she subsequently served as a district court judge for the 9th Judicial District, presiding over Franklin, Granville, Vance, and Warren counties from 2009 to 2018.
After speaking with voters face to face in 80 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Thompson’s campaign for the Court of Appeals in 2022 ended in defeat, but her passion for justice remained undiminished.
“My interest never waned in that moment because the courts are still very important,” Thompson said.
In her role as a deputy commissioner of the NC Industrial Commission, Thompson further broadened her legal expertise. With nine years of experience as a judge in District 9, spanning both district and superior court divisions, she brings a unique perspective to the bench – one forged by real-world legal challenges.
Governor Roy Cooper, recognizing Thompson’s exemplary work ethic and dedication to the legal profession, appointed her to the NC Court of Appeals in September of 2023.
“The court of appeals is the meat and bones court for the lower courts’ decisions,” Thompson said. “So when the Governor called me in and asked if I would agree to the appointment, understanding that I would have to turn around and run for it, my thought was, ‘I’ve never stopped’.”
She has consistently expressed dedication to the courts and the crucial role the Court of Appeals plays in reviewing lower court decisions.
“You hear a lot about the NC Supreme Court and local district court races, but what in the world is the NC Court of Appeals? I try to break it down: when you feel like you haven’t had a fair day in court, or the judge simply got it wrong in applying the law, the most powerful words you can say in that courtroom is ‘I appeal’,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s tenure as a district court judge exposed her to a diverse array of cases, equipping her with advantageous insights into the inner workings of the courtroom.
“In district court, which is the kitchen sink court of all courts, you get everything from juvenile to criminal; one day you might be hearing mental health cases, and the next day you’re hearing a domestic violence case or you’re hearing a domestic dispute case,” Thompson said.
In her pursuit of ongoing legal advancements, Thompson realizes the importance of staying informed of new legal developments, especially in the realm of precedent-setting cases – recognizing the significance of upholding precedence while navigating first impression cases.
“It’s an ongoing process. Even as an appellate judge, when I’m reviewing the record and reviewing the law that is applied to the facts that are in front of me, you have to be up on the law,” Thompson said. “Sometimes, especially in the first impression cases, you’ve got to know what’s already out there and how precedence is important; to uphold precedence and not just come up with a new angle because it’s the flavor of the day.”
As an ordained minister, Thompson constantly navigates the delicate balance between personal faith and the law. She underscores her commitment to uphold the laws and constitution of the state while wearing the judicial robe, citing New Testament scripture. This verse not only serves as corroboration in her ability to separate church and state but also highlights that it is a command from Jesus of Nazareth himself.
“My faith belongs in my space, in my heart, but when I hit the bench and zip up the robe I have taken an oath to uphold the laws and constitution of our great state. Even my Savior wrote in his scriptures, ‘Give to Caesar what is due to Caesar, and to God what is due to God’.”
J. Henry Banks, a former District 9 judge, served at the same time as Thompson and said she would bring diversity and a human element to the court because of her experience at the front lines of the judicial system and her nuanced understanding of the cases that come before her.
Thompson believes her experience is what sets her apart from other candidates and allows her to be a more informed and fair jurist:
“I’ve sat on the bench but I’ve also argued in front of the bench. If you’re not familiar with the arena, and you’re coming in ice cold from just having a law degree and saying you’re an attorney, then you don’t get what’s happening at the moment that the judge is trying to issue an order from the bench.”
One of Thompson’s distinctive qualities is her ability to bridge the gap between legal expertise and practical advocacy. Before accepting the NC Court of Appeals position, she actively collaborated with various ministries to aid survivors of domestic violence.
Joy Forrest, the executive director of Called to Peace Ministries, commends Thompson for her empathetic approach, citing her propensity to listen and analyze rather than assume.
Thompson elucidates the significance of having been a valuable resource to victims by attending conferences and making herself available for free where she aimed to answer questions about courtroom experiences, recognizing the intimidating nature of such situations.
“My role, when I was with Called to Peace Ministries, was educational: coming into their conferences and giving the victims and survivors of domestic violence insights into what the court is looking for when you’re filing pleadings, when you’re giving testimony about what happened, and not being afraid to spill it all out,” Thompson said. “If it’s not within the four corners of the document then it can’t be considered as evidence when you’re coming into a trial posture.”
During Thompson’s 2022 election campaign, she encouraged voters to associate her with qualities such as experience, fairness, and impartiality. Nevertheless, she currently contends that these attributes are inherent in the foundational principles of the judicial system, describing them as simply the duties of any magistrate.
“The truth of the matter is that when you take on the role as a judge, that’s a part of your job description. At the end of the day, I want people to become more informed about the role of the Court of Appeals and how it’s out there when you feel like you’ve lost unfairly, or your case was misinterpreted or misapplied – this is where you go,” Thompson said.
Despite being appointed on the day as NC Supreme Court Justice Allison Riggs – and sharing the same ticket – Thompson acknowledges the challenge of gaining visibility in the media and throughout the community.
“It’s hard to get my name out there to say, ‘hey, I’m on the same ticket and I’m running – I’m running with a purpose: to make sure we have fair and balanced courts’.”
As North Carolina braces for the 2024 elections, Thompson is poised to contribute her unique blend of experience and empathy to the highest echelons of the state’s judiciary.