Q&A: N.C. Court of Appeals candidate Carolyn Thompson

Photo of Carolyn Thompson from her website.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

By Brigette Bagley

Carolyn Thompson is one of the candidates for the N.C. Court of Appeals seat that voters will determine in the general election. Thompson is running for a full-term position in the seat she was appointed to fill by Gov. Roy Cooper in September 2023 (her second appointment by Gov. Cooper).

Thompson has over 25 years of prosecutorial and judicial experience. She has served as a District Court Judge, Superior Court judge, and Deputy Commissioner for the Industrial Commission. In her community outreach efforts, she has volunteered as a Teen Court judge and youth mentor to help first-time youth offenders accept responsibility and learn about the court system.

With about 7 million eligible voters in North Carolina, her campaign has been working mostly through grassroots efforts. Mainly focusing on getting ambassadors out in communities who can speak for her and continue her messaging through the general election. 

The Durham VOICE’s Brigette Bagley sat down with her to discuss the challenges she faces going into November; to reflect on her experience as a prosecutor and judge; and to talk about what motivates her to keep fighting for judicial change. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham VOICE: What is your biggest challenge going into the general election? And how is this election an important one?

Carolyn Thompson: Every candidate is concerned about getting out the vote in this election with, you know, the news reports suggest that interest is low, but I believe otherwise. I think people are interested in protecting their rights and in democracy’s challenges. It’s not just that it’s being attacked. It’s actually being challenged and questioned every day that we allow the political process to take over our basic common sense, rights, remedies and things that we’ve all been granted. Now we’re looking twice at it and saying, “What? What happened to the vote? Why is it now being diluted?”

We always say every election is important. But really, this one is crucial. Getting out the vote as a down-ballot candidate, trying to keep people from having voter fatigue. Some people want to just come in and circle in the president and governor and leave, so we need to protect all three branches of government.

The judges are important. Judges are the typical branch of government that balances when people start talking about, “Hey, that law is not right,” or “That law is unconstitutional, it’s not fair.” Well, where do you normally go to deal with those issues? The courthouse. 

Appellate courts are often the last resort for people. People think it’s about the Supreme Court, but quite frankly, most of the cases that I see stop here and you don’t get to go to the Supreme Court.

What are some specific job experiences that have set you apart from your opponent? Have your previous appointments by Gov. Cooper helped this at all?

I think it gives me an advantage because I have been a trial attorney; I have argued in front of the trial court; I have been a trial judge on the district court level, which is the kitchen sink court for all things civil, criminal, juvenile, domestic, mental health, you name it.

And I’ve been a trial judge as a superior court judge, actually letting jurors — our peers — determine the fate of maybe defendants and parties to a case. And so, when I’m at this level of reading a record from those very courts that I’ve argued in front of and those very courts that I’ve sat on as a judge, I have an insight into what was going on in that moment. 

Even as I’m reading stacks of records today, I can look and say, “Okay, I get where the judge was going with that. I’ve been there, done that.” Or I can look at the argument of the attorney in a civil case and say, “Okay, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I understand where they’re going.”

We’ve got some serious cases, too serious, for people to just come in and run for a position just because. As far as this recent appointment to the Court of Appeals goes, I’ve been able to hit the ground running on day one, making sure the cases are not delayed. I don’t need that learning curve like my opponent would need coming in. I also understand the importance of timeliness and effective turnaround for cases so people can have closure.

What is your main motivator for running for a full term?

My fight goes back to being raised by a single mom and seeing the challenges that she went through in the court system, maintaining custody and how to support my brother and me. And so that’s why I started at an early age, wanting to make sure that kids did not suffer from dependency on a system. And making sure that if the system had to get involved, it was fair across the board whether or not you were able to afford an attorney.

Fast forward, I’m 55 years old, and it’s still important for me to know that someday I leave this court system better than I found it in ‘98, and ‘96 when I started practicing law. Someday it has to be that I can walk into a courtroom and it doesn’t look like a family reunion for me. Some imbalances need to be addressed in this day and age, and we’re still talking about what matters and what doesn’t matter.

My fight will always be about balancing the scales without tipping it one way or the other. Some on the other side of the party would say, “She’s an activist judge.” I’m not going to run from that. They make it something negative and it’s quite frankly a dog whistle for being a black woman in a robe.

What issues from your previous legal and judicial career do you hope to bring to the Court of Appeals? Do you want to continue hearing and making decisions on them?

My passion as an attorney has always been about domestic violence and protecting women and children from violence. And this passion will never leave me. It’s personal to me to make sure we understand that violence has to stop against women and children. While I’m on the bench, I will continue to do my classes where I educate clergy about the importance of recognizing signs and symptoms of domestic violence. I will continue to educate communities about what it looks like to actually help instead of being a proponent of the stigma that we shouldn’t talk about domestic violence. I will commit to talking to young ladies and girls about domestic violence starting at an early age, especially when it comes to our cell phones.

Is there anything you’d like to say to the voters?

I would ask that you make sure your readers know the importance of finding out who the candidates are, not just listening to the rhetoric. There are experiences you can find in your research of the candidate, like, ‘Have they actually heard this type of case? Are they coming in with institutional knowledge of how the court system works so there are no delays or miscommunications?

Do the research and don’t just check a block because it’s the loudest mic.

Edited by Lucy Smithwick