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WNC swears in a new judge

WNC swears in a new judge

After several months of filling gaps in court calendars with visiting judges, Western North Carolina will finally fill its District Court vacancy with Swain County native Justin Greene. 

Greene, who turns 44 this week, has practiced law out of Bryson City since 2006. While his areas of practice have been diverse, he has largely focused on family law and cases that often involved children in difficult situations. He represented Swain County DSS from 2010-2014 before becoming Graham County’s DSS attorney in 2018. In addition, he’s worked with the Guardian ad Litem program in the region.

Greene will be sworn in at 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, in Swain County by Steve Bryant, a retired District Court judge who hung up the robe in 2010. Bryant was the last judge out of Swain County to hold a seat on the bench. Greene said that prior to 2010, as far back as he could remember, there was always a judge from Swain County. He’s happy to again fill that role.

“I have an immense sense of pride in that,” Greene said.  

Greene had previously run for a District Court seat twice. In 2010, at just 30 years old, he lost a bid for a seat in an election where he finished fourth out of five candidates. When he ran again in 2020, judicial elections were partisan. In the general election against Republican Kaleb Wingate, Greene, a Democrat, only received about a third of the vote.

Greene said that after seeking a seat for so long and accumulating so much experience in the courtroom, he’s excited to don the robe.  

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“I feel honored and relieved to finally have accomplished this goal I was trying to accomplish,” he said.

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Justin Greene will be sworn in as Western North Carolina's newest judge on Friday, Nov. 18. Donated photo

The vacancy Greene will fill opened up on June 1 when Judge Kristina Earwood had to retire suddenly due to an emerging health concern that required a good deal of out-of-town trips to receive treatment. That set into motion the process for Gov. Roy Cooper to appoint a new judge. First, the bar representing the seven-county 30th Judicial District convened and nominated three attorneys to send along to Cooper as recommendations. The top three vote-getters were Greene; Vicki Tee, of Graham County; and Andy Bucker, an assistant district attorney out of Sylva.

From there, the three nominees met with Cooper for in-person interviews. Greene gave some insight into how his interview went.

“The impression I got from speaking with the governor is that he was someone who was thoughtful in his decision making,” Greene said. “You can tell he really cares about doing what’s best for the state in whatever way.”

The two talked about things most people might expect — what makes a good judge, what they like to see and don’t like to see in court, what could be improved in the court system, Greene’s personal background. But they also ventured into other topics.

“He and I both coached basketball; he coached his daughter’s team, and I coached my son’s,” Greene said. “We talked about how team sports are a great way to build community and comradery.”

Not long after his interview with Cooper, Greene was told he’d earned the appointment, but the news wasn’t delivered quite how he thought it’d be.

“I expected to get a call from one of the governor’s secretaries or an assistant, but I got the call from the governor himself,” Greene said.

And yet, even then, Greene still felt that the whole thing was surreal, as though he felt the rug could still be pulled out from under him.

“I feel like Charlie Brown kicking the football, and I’m still waiting for Lucy to pull it away,” he joked.

While all three of the bar’s nominees have an abundance of experience and are qualified to become a judge, it made sense that Greene and Teem were the most logical choices for Cooper, considering four of the judges now are from Haywood County, and there have been calls for more judges in the far-western counties.

“I think that was a big part of why the bar nominated me to the governor,” Greene said. “Everybody recognized we had this need. When I ran in 2020, I said the same thing; we had a need for greater geographic diversity on our bench.”

Currently, Tessa Sellers of Clay County is the only judge who resides in a county other than Haywood. This can be burdensome for several reasons. Perhaps most notably, judges are needed at all times, day and night, to sign things like search warrants and emergency custody orders. Having judges in multiple counties across the judicial district makes this easier on not only the judges, but law enforcement officers who may need to travel to get the signature. Greene recalled that when he was working on a particular case, District Court Judge Donna Forga, a Haywood County resident, had to meet him at the Swain County detention center late at night to sign an order.

“Now that there’s somebody out there in the middle part of the district, it might make it easier,” Greene said.

Chief District Court Judge Roy Wijewickrama agreed.

“Most attorneys are looking forward to having a judge in the middle of the judicial district,” Wijewickrama said. “It’s very important to have the geographic diversity that presents.” 

Wijewickrama said he believes any of the bar’s nominees would have been qualified, good selections for the seat on the bench but noted that Greene was an “excellent choice.” 

Since Earwood’s retirement, the district has had to rely on retired judges to return to the bench to hear cases and keep the judicial system humming, including Judge Jerry F. Waddell, who retired to Western North Carolina from New Bern, where he’d previously held a seat on the bench. He’s been out in the mountains — retired — for 10 years.

“We will have a judge that will be here for some time who’s not visiting and has practiced in the courts for many years and is familiar with the courts and court personnel and attorneys,” Wijewickrama said. “But we really appreciate all the hard work retired judges have done for us in the past year.” 

In just over a year, another new judge will join Greene on the bench as the General Assembly included one more judicial position for Western North Carolina in the most recent budget, the first new spot on the bench in the last 17 years — a time during which there has been extensive growth across every county. That judge will be chosen by voters in November of next year.

Getting a new judge is a crucial step toward ensuring the courts can keep up with the increased caseload that comes with the recent surge in full-time and part-time residents, as well as visitors. Wijewickrama said in a previous interview that he believes the caseload taken on by the new judge will alleviate much of the judicial burden that has plagued the area for years and was exacerbated by the court shutdowns early on during the pandemic.

“That additional judge will help a lot right away,” he said.

Greene will also have run to retain his seat in 2024. Should he win, he will serve out the rest of Earwood’s original term and will be up for reelection again in 2026. In the meantime, he said he’s excited to see what the other side is like after spending so many years wanting a seat on the bench.

“I’m looking forward to continuing the good work Judge Earwood was doing,” he said. “I’m thankful to members of the bar who nominated me to go to the governor’s office and to the governor for picking me. I feel very grateful.”

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