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Who will preside over District Court? Greene, Wingate run for judgeship

Kaleb Wingate (left) and Justin Greene. Kaleb Wingate (left) and Justin Greene.

Kaleb Wingate and Justin Greene both earned their law degrees at North Carolina Central University in Durham, but they have different perspectives when it comes to the current criminal justice system and how they plan to serve Western North Carolina if elected to serve as a district judge.

As the Republican on the ticket, Wingate has repeatedly labeled himself throughout his campaign as the “conservative, constitutional” candidate this district needs to serve on the bench. 

“I am proud to be a conservative, constitutional, common sense candidate for District Court judge. I think it’s important to know where candidates stand on issues, but my job as a judge will be to rule on the facts of the case and not base decisions on people’s personal beliefs,” he said. 

Greene on the other hand has made it clear how he feels about judge races being partisan.

“I hate it,” he said. “If I’m even in court for any reason, the last thing I want is for the judge to be thinking about my politics. Being a judge is not a political position.”

This is Greene’s second run for District Court judge in the seven-county district. The Bryson City native ran for the seat in 2010 when he was 30 years old. Now that he’s 10 years older and 10 years wiser, he said he can understand now why age and experience matter when running for this type of position. 

“I ran for District Court judge in 2010 and I was the same age (my opponent) is now. A lot of people said I was too young to do this and I said that wasn’t true,” he said. “But the fact is in hindsight, that criticism was absolutely valid. In the last 10 years I’ve had to do all kinds of law — custody cases, I’ve argued with tough lawyers on both sides — and there’s something to be said for that experience. And not just court experience but life experience. I’m in a different place than I was 10 years ago. Now I have two children — 18, 11 — I’m more patient and you have more forethought as you get older. You see things differently.”

On the cusp of turning 32, Wingate has been criticized this time around for his age and lack of experience. The Haywood County native says voters should look at the quality and quantity of his experience in the courtroom and not his age. 

“I was an assistant district attorney in Haywood prosecuting cases for four to five years,” Wingate said. “I’ve prosecuted thousands of cases in seven counties. That’s a lot of experience — and I was in District Court for a majority of that time and the last two years I spent in Superior Court handling serious felonies.”

Wingate then went into private practice after leaving the DA’s office, a move he said has given him experience in criminal defense as well. He has also turned the tables on his opponent by pointing out that Greene has spent his career as a defense lawyer with no time as a prosecutor. 

“It’s important to look at a case from all sides — from the state’s perspective and the defendants’ — as an ADA you’re immersed in criminal law every day. I would try five to six cases in one day so I really got a lot of experience in a short amount of time so it’s not just about years,” he said. “A large part of my time in private practice has been with DSS cases — I haven’t had a lot of experience in child custody outside of that.”

Greene says his years of experience on the defense side have been broad and all-encompassing. He’s practiced law in Bryson City since 2006. He was a DSS attorney for Swain County from 2010-2014 and has been a DSS attorney for Graham County since 2018. He’s also worked with the Guardian Ad Litem program. Whether you’re on the defense or prosecutor side, he said, the lawyer is charged with proving the same underlying issues.

“I like the idea of helping people and my job gives me that opportunity. People need lawyers — not all of them are criminals,” he said. “There’s so many different types of things involved —  family, criminal, land titles, real estate, adoptions, landlord-tenant issues, civil cases — I’ve handled all these types of cases over the years. I take cases here where I believe in someone’s cause and want to help out. We have a need for that in our community.”

Wingate and Greene also differ with how they view their role as a District Court judge. They both acknowledge their first priority is to rule on the laws as they are currently written, but it gets a little more complicated when it comes to a judge’s role in advocating for improving the laws and supporting reformed criminal justice programs.

Greene said he’s served on a number of advisory councils and boards that work toward improving the criminal justice system and said he would continue to do so if elected District Court judge. 

“One major issue across the district is recidivism of criminal defendants. You see the same people over and over again and nothing changes, which should lead us to changing our approach. If you do the same thing over and over again expecting different results, well that’s the definition of insanity. We have to be more creative in approaching these issues,” he said. “And when making decisions in court as a judge, you have to be aware of the circumstances of the people that come into your court and their records and how often you see them.”

In his time serving on the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and other advisory roles, Greene said the board always includes a District Court judge and other advocates to address recidivism. 

“The people involved want to improve things — they want to solve some of these problems,” Greene said. 

Wingate said it would be his job as judge to ensure all communities are safe, ensuring everyone’s constitutional rights are being protected and that District Court is running as efficiently as possible. 

“This is where that experience as a prosecutor comes into play. I’ve seen court days in the 400- to 500-docket numbers, and you have to learn to manage caseloads,” he said. “As a judge, I will encourage everyone to work together with the state and other attorneys to move cases along because the longer a case is pending the worse it is on all the parties involved in the case.”

A major change in the 30th Judicial District happened a couple of years ago when Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts led the charge to implement a Pre-trial Release program in Haywood and Jackson counties. The pilot program began in 2019 with the goals of reducing the local jail population, decreasing recidivism rates and increasing the efficiency of the court system.  

The program put into place a new decision-making framework for law enforcement and judges to use when it comes to issuing citations and setting bonds. Participating law enforcement were given a Cite or Arrest Pocket Card meant to encourage the increased use of citations instead of an arrest for certain misdemeanors and the issuing of summons instead of warrants. The program also included updating the old Local Bail Policy magistrate judges used to determine how to set someone’s bond. 

The program was evaluated quarterly by professors at Western Carolina University and results showed improvements within the court system, specifically with fewer secured bonds and more non-financial conditions for pretrial release, fewer pretrial bookings at the jails and shorter jail stays for those who are booked pretrial. 

On the other hand, the program has been criticized by some in the community who think it’s a way for criminals to get off easy with a lower bond even though the program is geared toward low-level misdemeanors and for people without a previous record. 

Greene said he’d heard good things about the program and WCU’s analysis showed improvements in the backlogged courtrooms. 

“WCU shows it’s working. Folks hadn’t reoffended more than before the policy was implemented,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to be aware of the community’s safety when issuing bonds. It’s always a balance.”

Wingate worked as an ADA when the program was in the pilot stage. Whether or not the program stays in place in the future, he said, he would continue to act in the best interest of everyone involved, agreeing with Greene that the considerations for bond amounts is a balancing act between the risk someone poses to the safety of the community and themselves, their prior history and the strength of evidence in the case.

“We have to take all of that into consideration during the process,” he said. 

When asked if he witnessed anything problematic with how the program played out in court, Wingate said he couldn’t specifically comment on that.

In a debate held in Murphy, both candidates spoke at great length about specialty court programs like drug court, veterans court and family court. Greene and Wingate would both like to see treatment courts available to people in the far western counties but also agreed that resources to get those services here are limited. Counties like Buncombe have had great success with their treatment court, but they also have more funding and a smaller geographic district to cover. The 30th Judicial District covers seven rural counties, which would make it difficult to offer the same services to all constituents. 

Wingate expressed his support for a drug court, acknowledging that a majority of people with drug-related charges would be better suited for supervised treatment in lieu of jail time.  

“Addiction is a disease and it needs to be treated,” he said. 

However, Wingate said he would only be in favor of implementing the program if services were available to people in all seven counties. 

“I will work hard to establish treatment courts in our district, but funding will need to come from Raleigh and D.C. to establish those and I would insist upon services in all communities. Someone in Bryson City should be treated the same way as someone in Waynesville,” he said. 

Currently, judges can refer someone in the district to drug court in Buncombe County, but Wingate said it takes a lot of work on the Clerk of Court office to get those cases transferred over to another county right now so it doesn’t happen often. He said he’d also be open to looking at transit opportunities to ensure someone in Graham County could attend a drug court in one of the other counties. 

Greene agreed that a lack of resources would be the biggest obstacle to establishing any kind of treatment court because participants require continuous monitoring, more so than typical probation. 

“Participants have to go to court once or twice a month. When you have a defendant on probation, you don’t see them unless they get in trouble again,” he said. 

While Greene would love to see a program in the district, he said it could take a while to happen. In the meantime, he said there are ways to incorporate some of the drug court stipulations into the current probation system as a way to make incremental improvements sooner. 

“We can set review dates for probationary hearings. If you have a minor drug crime, rather than a conviction, you can get 90-96 probation and if you comply, you can get the charge dismissed. There’s potential to do that with deferred prosecution agreements and require people to go to treatment,” he said. “So, we can start incorporating some of those ideals now.”

Greene understands Wingate’s logic regarding offering these services in every county, but he said it’s just not realistic given the geography, population and the need in certain counties. 

“No way that will ever happen. Some of the smaller counties won’t get it because drug courts are mostly funded by counties. There’s not enough court time in smaller counties or enough need. It’s pointless to wait for all counties to get it to offer it.”

There are six District Court judge seats in the district. If Wingate wins the election, five of those six judges will reside in Haywood County. That’s an important factor in this election, Greene said, because judges have to move around the spread-out district often. 

“Electing me preserves something of a geographic character, which is an important issue outside of Haywood County,” he said. 

 

Candidates for District Court Judge

Justin Greene

• Age: 40

• Hometown: Bryson City

• Education: Double major in history and English at UNC-Chapel Hill; law degree from North Carolina Central University.

• Professional background: Practicing law since 2006. DSS attorney for Swain County from 2010-14; DSS attorney for Graham County since 2018. 

Kaleb Wingate

• Age: 31

• Hometown: Waynesville

• Education: Tuscola High; degree in construction management and business administration from Western Carolina University; law degree from North Carolina Central University.

• Professional background: Assistant District Attorney in Haywood District Court for almost five year; private practice as a defense lawyer.

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