Steve Bryant was fresh out of law school and just learning his way around the courtroom when the judge hearing his case one day threatened to throw him in jail.
The judge had announced a recess, and Bryant seized the opportunity to pass a file to a clerk. But when the clerk in turn passed the file to the judge, Bryant was blamed for interrupting the judge’s break — a sin apparently justifying jail time.
“I thought he was dead serious,” Bryant said. Distraught, he called the partners at his Bryson City law firm and gave them the bad news that his legal career was over.
But it turned out Judge Robert Leatherwood was infamous for such admonitions and old-fashioned tongue lashings during his reign in the 1970s and ‘80s. For the lawyers and clients on the receiving end, they spent their days in court navigating an invisible minefield for fear a misstep would invoke Leatherwood’s ire.
“People were afraid of him, and the lawyers were afraid of him,” said John Snow, a judge for 28 years and now a state senator. “When I became a judge, that was one of the things I made a conscious effort to do, to make people feel comfortable in the courtroom.”
Nine years after Bryant’s embarrassing day in court, he became a District Court judge himself. Leatherwood committed suicide in the parking lot of Moody Funeral Home in Bryson City in the mid-1980s, and Bryant was appointed to fill the vacant seat. Like Snow, Bryant didn’t want to the run the kind of courtroom that Leatherwood had.
“I was conscious of the fact that the courtroom under the volatile circumstances of my predecessor made for an unnecessarily uncomfortable workplace,” Bryant said.
Lawyers constantly feared a clash with Leatherwood would land their clients harsher sentences with no apparent reason other than a moody day on the bench. Bryant instead strove for a “degree of predictability.”
“If you are an even-keel person, and day in and day out you handle your interactions with lawyers on the same basic plane, it makes it easier for the lawyers to advise their clients of a likely outcome,” Bryant said. “I don’t think you can worry about if they like you or don’t like you or think you are smart or an idiot, but it is important that everybody who comes to the table has their day in court.”
Judge Danny Davis came on the bench about the same time as Bryant, and likewise had experienced the Leatherwood courtroom.
“I think we both lived through that in our early days practicing law and understood the downside of that,” Bryant said.
Over the next two decades, Snow, Davis and Bryant conveyed a courtroom demeanor that was ultimately institutionalized as standard operating procedure within the 30th Judicial District, a court circuit spanning the seven western counties from Waynesville to Murphy.
“Everybody that came to practice after that, they realized they were going to get a fair shake and be treated with respect,” Snow said.
As a result, the 30th Judicial District is the envy of lawyers elsewhere in the state.
“We’ve had such a good set of judges for so long, lawyers that practice in other counties like to come here and do cases because they know they and their people will be treated fairly and courteously,” said Steve Ellis, a Waynesville attorney running for judge. “Even if they ruled against you, you knew they had made a thoughtful decision, and it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction.”
Bob Clark, a Waynesville attorney who has practiced in other districts, said the judges here are simply the best.
“Most of that is a consistency in temperament,” Clark said. “The judge won’t be in one mood one day and a different mood another day. Court runs well when you have judges who are clear in their rulings and dealings with others so you don’t have a tense situation of wondering what is going to happen next.”
That temperament is appreciated across the legal community.
“Judges should allow attorneys to try their cases without walking on eggshells,” said Roy Wijiwickrama, an attorney who lives in Waynesville and serves as prosecutor for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
What’s known as “judge shopping” — when lawyers jockey for a slot on the schedule to have their cases heard by the better judges — happens little in District Court here. Attorneys for the most part can roll into court without stressing about which judge they get.
“It’s something that is not so certain going forward given the amount of change we are facing,” Ellis said.
After two decades of relative stability, the 30th Judicial District is in major flux. Of six District Court judges now in office, three are new to the bench in the past five years. With the retirement of Davis and Bryant, two more seats will change hands. In all, five of the six District Court judges will be new since 2004 — with their combined experience being fewer years than any of their predecessors claimed alone.
Davis said demeanor is perhaps the most important quality voters should size up when picking from the daunting list of District Court judge hopefuls on the ballot this election year.
“The demeanor of who is on the bench is important. I think the main thing is to be courteous to people and to be fair to them and have patience, which is tested from time to time,” Davis said. “You can read about the law and listen to the evidence, but temperament and demeanor are sometimes hard to teach and hard to learn.”
The demeanor promulgated by tenured District Court judges and coveted by the legal community isn’t lost on candidates posturing for the open seats.
“We have been extremely fortunate here to have judges with a great judicial temperament that are fair and objective. We need to take care to ensure that continues,” said David Sutton, a Waynesville attorney running for one of the seats.
“It is the best bench in the state and always has been,” said Justin Greene, a Bryson City attorney running for judge. “They are not unapproachable. They are not bullies. If you need help, they will help you. They will work with you. They are all professional in their jobs. I would take a lot of pride in being part of that.”
Despite candidates’ pledges to carry on the tradition, this election can’t help but “change the flavor of the bench,” said Greg Boyer, a Franklin attorney running for judge.
“They are big shoes to fill,” Boyer said.
Those appearing in District Court come from all walks of life. But despite their socio-economic status or the crime they’re charged with, Davis said everyone in court deserves dignity.
“I still say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No ma’am’ to folks in court. Even if you are getting ready to sentence them, they deserve a certain amount of respect,” Davis said.
It doesn’t go unnoticed by practicing attorneys.
“They look at people no matter what their station in life as individuals,” said Donna Forga, a Waynesville attorney running for judge. “They treat people with respect.”
The attitude is infectious throughout the court system.
“The key thing I have seen is a caring about people in the court system,” said Greg Boyer, a Franklin attorney who practiced in Florida prior to moving to the mountains. “They aren’t just a number or a cog in the wheel. The judges and the lawyers still see individuals. They see people.”
Another hallmark of the 30th Judicial District is the absence of an ivory-tower philosophy.
“One thing I always wanted to avoid as a judge is being enamored with my position, thinking that just because I am a judge, I am a special person,” Snow said. “You don’t want to be thought of as acting that way.”
The behavior of those appearing in court has gotten more raucous over the years, however, and doesn’t always make the judge’s job easy. Davis often finds himself telling people: “This is not Judge Judy’s court.”
“Some of these court TV shows are not realistic, but people think that they are,” Davis said.
Davis said the nature and volume of cases has changed for the worst.
“You have a front row seat for a lot of ills of society,” Davis said. “It is hard work. It is also emotionally draining. From time to time you will see things you don’t want to see. It is not the same job it was in 1984.”
There has been one improvement. Judges have their own office in the courthouse now, unlike in Davis’ early years.
“People would drive out to my house to get orders signed,” Davis said.