by Sarah E. Demarest and Crystal Richardson, attorneys at law
Few people pay attention to low profile political races like District Court judicial races or clerk of Superior Court. This is problematic because the judicial system touches the life of every LGBT person. Whether you are in the process of divorcing a spouse, arguing about custody, dealing with domestic violence, changing a name, adopting a child or disputing a traffic citation, you will appear before a clerk or judge who will make important decisions about your life using both the law and their personal belief systems as their guide.
Although judges have a duty to be impartial and unbiased, it is impossible to eliminate bias and be genuinely neutral. Judges and clerks are human beings with personal experiences and biases that shape their ability to empathize with others. There is no such thing as true impartiality because our families, political beliefs, religious beliefs, racial identities, level of wealth, sexual identities, gender and other identities provide a lens through which we see the world. We all have biases that we need to recognize and overcome. Our families are biased, friends are biased, teachers are biased, lawyers are biased, doctors are biased. Judges have to deal with the most difficult bias of all: believing they are without bias.
Judicial integrity and elimination of bias is a cornerstone of the judicial system. It is so important, in fact, that the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct (NCCJC) requires judges to be impartial, unbiased and make their decisions in accordance with North Carolina law. However, the bias of some judges is so apparent that a good attorney can predict the outcome of a case before they enter the courtroom. And while the NCCJC even goes as far as to state that Judges cannot “participate in organizations that discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion or national origin,” it does not appear to exclude discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Can a judge participate in organizations that discriminate against LGBT people?
It is true that North Carolina law does not provide adequate protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals or families. We lack protections in employment, we have a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and we do not allow second parent adoptions. Because legal protections are scarce, it is critical to elect judges and clerks who will not further disadvantage LGBT people by intentionally or unintentionally acting on their personal bias or by being uneducated on LGBT issues.
How can we prevent this from occurring? The first step is to educate yourself and your families about who is running for office and understand the role they play in your life. This November a new clerk of Superior Court will be elected in Mecklenburg County and they will oversee matters of probate, adoption and name changes. Additionally, there are several important District Court races that may impact criminal court and family court. You can educate yourself by staying up to date on resources put out by LGBT publications and organizations like qnotes, Equality NC and MeckPAC.
We must understand whom we are voting for, even in low profile or non-partisan races. The consequence of not being educated about who is elected in these races is that you may end up in court one day, appearing before a judge who does not understand or value your relationship or family. You may feel that in order to receive a fair and impartial outcome you have to hide your sexuality, or hide your spouse. : :
— Sarah Demarest is the staff attorney at Charlotte’s Freedom Center for Social Justice LGBTQ Law Center. Crystal Richardson is the Freedom Moral Summer Organizer for Equality North Carolina.