Judicial Candidates Questionnaire

POLITICS

TLR is publishing the responses of all the candidates who submitted answers to our questionnaires.


Judicial Candidates Question 1: In order to render a decision, the Judge must determine the true facts, usually after hearing two sharply differing accounts. How would you go about the task of deciding who to believe?

Noah Oswald: The reality is that nobody can truly detect a lie. Regardless of training, people will still make mistakes. Studies have shown that when judges adopt the hubris of thinking they know who is honest and not, their mistake rates increase. Because of this, our justice system establishes different burdens of proof for litigants in criminal cases and civil cases. In criminal law facts must be determined “beyond a reasonable doubt”; in civil law the standard is a “preponderance of the evidence” or more likely than not. Both standards still leave the ultimate responsibility on the judge, so the judge needs to listen to learn, consider the consequences, and apply the law.

When judges truly listen, witnesses, attorneys, and other stakeholders are respected and heard. Whether the judge ultimately rules in his or her favor or not, an individual who feels that respect can have a positive judicial outcome. Being engaged and present allows a judge to evaluate testimony for gaps, inconsistencies, and mistakes.

Our District Courts have significant and direct impact on individual lives. The decision made by a judge about what and whom to believe can drastically impact litigants, their families, their friends, and our community. I believe that everyone  can have both implicit and explicit potential bias, and knowing that, I will concentrate on the particular facts of each case including non-testimonial evidence, to both find facts and dispense justice. I am aware that credibility is subjective, and it is the Judge’s responsibility to exclude bias from the evaluative process.

Finally, as a judge, my allegiance will be to applying the law to the particular facts and circumstances of each case, never forgetting that while the Rule of Law requires an adherence to the rules, laws, and precedent in place, as the trier of facts, a District Court Judge must should remain humble, teachable, and honest. As a veteran trial attorney, I understand that there is a difference between alternate perspectives and outright dishonesty. I have been fooled, but I have also seen through many fallacious assertions made by litigants. My commitment to the people who will appear in my courtroom is simple, I will do my best to guarantee just outcomes by listening to learn, considering the consequences, and applying the law.

Hathaway Pendergrass: When determining the credibility of a witness, Jurors are advised to use the same test of truthfulness used every day when interacting with others. This is a great place to start. As a District Court Judge, I would leverage similar filters to assess the veracity and credibility of the testimony and evidence provided in a trial. I would begin with corroboration – determining if there is any other available evidence that can support what has been presented. I would also determine whether the individual or entity offering information has provided truthful and consistent testimony relative to believable facts involved in the matter. In addition, it is important to understand the prejudice or bias the witness brings with them to the courtroom. Lastly, I would assess for the witness’ certainty of knowledge.

Each of the above filters can be successfully leveraged by actively listening and understanding the context around how information is delivered. For example, if someone testifies and appears nervous, has a hard time speaking, and can only look at the ground, someone might conclude that person may not be telling the truth. However, I would not jump to this conclusion. Understanding the person providing the testimony is key to determining their veracity for telling the truth. This takes intentional action. Court can be very stress-inducing even for the most senior attorney.  The individual providing testimony may be distrustful of the court system. The party on the witness stand may be testifying against their spouse or partner in a domestic violence action and be fearful for their life depending on what they say.

In order to be the best Judge possible I will continuously check my own implicit biases that I carry with me each day. Understanding my own biases is important to ensure my decisions are not based on what a witness or party looks like or what they’re wearing. More than a decade ago, I was introduced to the concept of white  privilege. I have worked to understand my privileges in an attempt to recognize additional implicit biases. I greatly benefitted from the training I received from the Racial Equity Institute. As President of the 15B Judicial District Bar, I instituted a policy with our Racial Justice Task Force whereby our Bar would fund REI training for all interested judges and attorneys in our District. It is important for me that all courtroom stakeholders carry with them in their decision-making processes the understanding of race and how it pervades our institutions, including the judicial system.

As a District Court Judge, I will utilize the above methods as a guide to navigating cases with sharply differing accounts. I will work as hard as possible each day to remove my biases from the decision-making process and get to the truth.

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Judicial Candidates Question 2: Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required to convict a criminal case. What does this standard mean to you and how would you apply it?

Noah Oswald: The right to individual freedom and liberty is protected in our justice system by the hallowed words “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The question of what is reasonable became a topic of interest for me in law school and remains so today. My practical trial experience in our District Courts has taught me that one cannot lose sight of that standard. The measure or degree of doubt is irrelevant.  If there is any reasonable doubt, there should be no conviction. The standard also does not apply equally to the prosecution and the defense.  Our district attorneys must try cases and prove every element without flaw; however, the defense need only find one element upon which to cast doubt. A judge must know and understand this difference and dutifully apply the law.

Hathaway Pendergrass: Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof in the law. This standard is applied in criminal settings where the liberty of a fellow human being is decided. No lesser standard should be allowed and applied. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the necessary line of demarcation between an allegation and a criminal conviction. To me, proof beyond a reasonable doubt means that if any reasonable doubt exists, the defendant must be found not guilty. The determination of what is reasonable begins with common sense. If the doubt is not supported by common sense and by the evidence presented, then the doubt is unreasonable. The State can secure a conviction only if all reasonable doubt has been removed. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt requires the trier of fact to be completely convinced of the defendant’s guilt.

As a criminal defense litigator, I push to ensure this standard is upheld every time I’m in court. In District Court, the judge acts as both the judge and jury. As a judge, I will unequivocally apply the standard with a clear understanding that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, the State’s burden of proof is the highest of all burdens, and that reasonable doubt, rather than unreasonable doubt, must be removed. When attempting to determine what is reasonable, I will work hard and with intention to best ensure my own implicit biases are not clouding my judgment. In applying the standard, in order for me to find someone guilty, I must be fully satisfied or entirely convinced of the defendant’s guilt.

Upholding the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt in each and every criminal case that comes before the court will instill confidence in the judicial system within the community I love so much. I will ensure this standard is upheld every single day.

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Judicial Candidates Question 3: All Judicial candidates promise to be “fair”, but this is a very subjective term. What does being fair actually mean to you and how would you translate your concept of fairness into actual cases?

Noah Oswald: Fairness is more than what you say, it is also what you do.

Fair means to listen carefully to everyone’s words.

Fair means to apply the rules to everyone in the same way.

Fairness means to respect the parties both in the courtroom and outside the courtroom.

Fairness means to be even handed.

Fairness is reflected in both compassion and concern.

Fairness is reflected in positive judicial outcomes. It is dependent upon fair procedures and fair and honest application of the law.

As a member of the judicial equity committee in Orange County, I have learned that individuals who come to our court system are often overwhelmed by our judicial institution. The legal system is complicated. It has embraced a vernacular that mixes modern and historic English with Latin, abbreviations, and acronyms. Judges need to lead the legal community in evaluating and adapting the systems and structures that are in place to make them user friendly and understandable. Public resources should be available that guide citizens through the overall process.

As a Judge, I will show compassion and patience with people who don’t work in the courtroom each day. I will endeavor to explain the processes when possible, listening, offering gentle correction and patiently accommodating the public’s learning curve. In addition to the decency of this level of respect, Judges should promote and support efforts to provide guides and resources that enhance understanding and facilitate informed participation. Finally, Judges need to be clear when resolving or disposing of matters before the Court. Litigants should understand the resolution of their matter and defendants should receive a clear explanation of their sentencing and dispositional outcomes.

I have seen the array of people who leave our courtrooms frustrated, confused, and hurt. I have also seen individuals leave with a positive attitude and understanding of our system. I know that showing respect to each case individually and pairing that respect with clear explanations of outcomes will produce more positive judicial experiences in our system. When those two things are combined with the proper application of the law, justice is achieved.

Hathaway Pendergrass: My judicial philosophy rests on three key pillars: (i) ensuring equity in the judicial process; (ii) connecting with compassion; and (iii) serving the best interests of children and youth. Ensuring equity in the judicial process does not equate to treating everyone equal. Equality is not the same as equity. Equity takes into consideration the person and their specific needs.  For me, fairness equivocates to equity.

I’m running to bring Justice with Dignity to the courtroom. At a minimum, a judge applies the facts to the law in order to make a decision. It is just as important for me to treat every single person who comes before the court with the exact same amount of dignity, respect, and compassion, no matter what they look like, where they’re from, who they love, or how much money they earn. Understanding the person – the human – before me is of utmost importance. I will meet each person where they are when they come to court.

The application of this understanding can have a massive impact. For example, when setting court costs, fines, and fees, $200.00 looks different to every person. To some, if $200.00 is put towards court costs, something else will go unpaid; a utility bill, insurance premium, or necessities for one’s home. When setting conditions of probation, a judge must understand the limits of the defendant. Requiring someone to attend multiple therapy and court sessions in a week when that same person does not own a vehicle and does not have access to public transportation is setting that person up for failure.

Fairness is allowing someone to feel they have had their day in court, whether successful or not. Fairness is communicating clearly and directly with involved parties, and explaining any nuances that factor into a decision as a means of alleviating any anxieties that amass while navigating the intricacies of court. Fairness is ensuring the safety of the victim and community, and allowing the defendant to take responsibility for their actions.

As a judge, I will slow down, listen, and ask the necessary questions to understand the person and circumstances that brought them before me. I will treat everyone in the courtroom with dignity and respect and I will communicate with compassion. I will render decisions with equity at the forefront of my mind.  I will strive for fairness every day and in every case as a District Court Judge.

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Judicial Candidate Bios 

Noah Oswald Bio: Noah is a lifetime resident of Orange County, growing up in Hillsborough, lived in Chapel Hill and now residing in Mebane with his wife and two children. As a graduate of North Carolina Central University School of Law, Noah is proud to be working as a trial attorney in our local courts where he practices in all areas of law including civil and family law matters, criminal matters, child abuse cases and is trusted by local judges as a Guardian ad Litem in complex custody matters. He has served our community as president of the local bar association, a member of the Orange County Courthouse and Judicial Equity Committees, the Orange County Affordable Housing Advisory Board, and the Efland Cheeks PTA and School Improvement Teams. Noah’s work to build a better justice system in our State was recognized and honored with the 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Award presented by Lawyer’s Weekly.

Hathaway Pendergrass Bio: Hathaway Pendergrass, a native of Carrboro, practices at Epting and Hackney law firm in Chapel Hill, where he focuses on civil litigation and criminal defense in District Court. He graduated from UNC-CH where he earned a BS in Business Administration from the Kenan-Flagler Business School. He attended North Carolina Central School of Law, served as Editor-in-Chief of the North Carolina Central Law Review and graduated Summa Cum Laude. Hathaway is Chair of the Board of Directors for the Orange & Chatham Justice Initiatives affiliate, a Board Member of the Orange County Planning Board, a Board Member of The ArtsCenter, a Member of the 18 Judicial District Bar Racial Justice Task Force, a Teen Court Judge with Volunteers for Youth in Orange County, and volunteers as the attorney for EmPOWERment, Inc. in Chapel Hill. Hathaway previously served as President and Board Member of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center Board of Directors, President of the 15B Judicial District Bar, a Board Member of the Orange County Bar, a Board Member of the Carrboro Planning board, volunteered as the attorney for the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, and served as a volunteer in the 15B Judicial District Guardian Ad Litem program. Hathaway lives in Hillsborough with his wife, Kate and two children, Eliza and Max.

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