Two members of the city’s historically black bar association have announced their intentions to run for the newly-approved seat on the Forsyth County District Court bench.
Attorneys Valene Franco and Donna Taylor, both members of the Winston-Salem Bar Association (WSBA), will be among those vying for the seat, the 11th in the state’s 21st Judicial District (Forsyth County), during the 2014 election season.
The new judgeship, which was created by the North Carolina General Assembly during the last legislative session, was a pleasant surprise, said State Sen. Earline Parmon.
“We are always happy to have an extra judgeship,” said Parmon, who represents Forsyth. “It will help with the backlog in the courts and guarantee people a more speedy trial.”
Parmon said the new seat is the biproduct of State Rep. Justin Burr’s successful campaign to create a stand-alone judicial district in Stanly County.
“We didn’t ask for it … but because of a political favor in his county, we became the recipients of goodwill,” she said.
Whatever the reason for its creation, WSBA President Frederick Adams II said the new judgeship is sorely needed in Forsyth County.
“I certainly support anything that promotes efficiency within our district court system,” Adams said of the District, which has frequently had to call on backup or emergency judges to fill in for those who were vacationing or ill. “In the past few years, specialty courts have been created, and the addition of another judge will benefit us all.”
Franco, a managing attorney in the Family Law Department at Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Winston-Salem office and former president of both the WSBA and the Forsyth County Bar Association, said she was inspired to run after being nominated by fellow FCBA members as a write-in candidate to fill the seat of former Chief District Court Judge William Reingold (who is retiring) during a July 18 meeting of the Forsyth County Bar.
“I see this as just the ultimate opportunity to be of service to both the legal community and the larger community,” said the Boston College Law School alumna. “That’s why I’m throwing my hat in the ring.”
Although she was not among the top three candidates selected by the Forsyth County Bar to succeed Reingold, Franco delivered a speech about the post during the gathering and managed to surpass the level of support received by some established candidates on the ballot.
“Me being nominated from the floor – literally written into the ballot – was the first time that’s ever happened in Forsyth County,” related Franco, a native of White Plains, N.Y. “I’ve received such great support and encouragement because of that speech … all of that is continuing to propel me in the process.”
Though she doesn’t relish the idea of a full-scale political campaign, Franco, a mother of two, said she is up for the challenge, because she believes in the importance of the position.
“It is your best opportunity to affect justice, essentially, because you are the one who’s going to be making the final decision,” she noted. “You’re there to represent and to try to ensure justice for everybody coming into the court system. I just can’t think of any better way to be of service to people; that is pretty high up there.”
If elected, Franco, a member of the Reynolda Rotary and Authoring Action Board of Directors, said her goal is to be “the most ethical and professional person walking through the Halls of Justice.”
Taylor, a former magistrate and North Carolina Central University School of Law alumna, has been in private practice as a general practitioner since 2011. Taylor, who hails from a military family, has also held posts in the Industrial Commission (the judicial body for workers’ compensation) and the Employment Security Commission. She said she too began to consider a judgeship following the FCBA meeting last summer.
“When I learned that the new seat was created, I said ‘I’m going for it,’” Taylor said.
Prior to enrolling in law school as a single mother, Taylor worked in several fields, from the airline to the hospitality industries. She believes her diverse work history, coupled with a broad spectrum of life experiences, will serve her well on the bench.
“The job of being a District Court judge is pretty much being overworked and underpaid, but you have a lot of opportunities to help people with their situations,” she remarked. “I think the big thing is fairness; it means a lot to litigants when they can walk into court and they see someone on the bench that they feel can understand them and can relate to them.”
Efficiency and making sure every person who comes before her feels heard would be the hallmarks of her service on the bench, said Taylor, a guardian ad litem and member of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness.
“I know it’s going to be a crowded field, because it’s a new seat, but I’m energized,” she said of her campaign. “I just go out and talk with folks and they seem very receptive.”
Adams said the WSBA is still weighing its options about which candidate is best suited for the job, but he feels confident that the organization will choose to endorse someone next year, once the filing season is done and campaigns begin in earnest.
“We certainly would like to see a more diverse bench to be more representative of Winston-Salem,” he said.
Candidates are slated to file for the new seat in February 2014. Of the current 10 local district court judges, only two – Denise Hartsfield and Camille Banks-Payne – are African American. Hartsfield, Judge George Bedsworth and Judge Lisa Menefee, who was recently pegged by Chief Justice of N.C. Sarah Parker as the 21st District’s new chief judge, will also be seeking votes next year. All three are up for reelection.