Judicial race pits diversity against pedigree

by Jordan Green

In one of two Guilford County district court judge races, a sitting judge is running unopposed; in the other, a seasoned member of the judiciary from a pedigreed High Point political family is trying to defend his seat against an immigrant upstart from Greensboro.

Judge Wendy Enochs has no competition for her seat, but voters will decide between Judge Tom Jarrell and former prosecutor Susan O’Hale on Nov. 7.

Jarrell himself worked as an assistant district attorney for Guilford County before ascending to the bench. With that background he won early support in his judicial career for law enforcement, but he has also established a reputation for fairness, receiving commendation for vindicating the innocent. He presents himself as a no-nonsense adjudicator, but has also been an enthusiastic proponent for such concepts as drug court, where sentences are crafted around treatment as much as punishment.

Judge Jarrell would like to reproduce the same model to handle defendants with mental health problems.

“I think mental health court is absolutely an important piece of the puzzle,” Jarrell said. “I, along with Judge Wendy Enochs, have been working on that for six months. We’ve got a lot of support to start a mental health court. We’ve got to find alternatives to incarceration.

“The beauty of the mental health court,” Jarrell continued, “is these people would report back to court every two weeks and we would know whether they were receiving their treatment and taking their medication – with the threat of incarceration – instead of warehousing them and they get out and their mental health issues are worse than when they went into jail.”

Jarrell, 44, graduated from Guilford College as president of his class in 1985. His mother, Mary Jarrell, served in the NC House of Representatives. Her father, Dave A. Long Jr., was the president of the former Amazon Cotton Mill in Thomasville and mayor of the town.

Thomasville lawyer William B. Mills explained the pedigree in a letter to then-Gov. Jim Hunt in 1999, when a host of supporters persuaded the governor to appoint Jarrell to complete the unexpired term of Judge Charles White. “Tom Jarrell, who wishes to have this judgeship,” Mills wrote, “comes from a long line of hardworking, prominent, civic minded, extremely well-liked people.”

Jarrell received endorsements from High Point Mayor Becky Smothers, then-Superior Court Judge Rick Greeson, then-NC Department of Crime head Richard H. Moore (now the state treasurer), and Sheriff BJ Barnes, who called him “a friend of law enforcement and justice.”

Norman Jameson, spokesman for Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, wrote that Tom Jarrell and his wife Cindy “earnestly seek to apply the Word to life,” and that the couple personified “the ideals you espouse through your fathering initiative and Smart Start and all the life’s blood you have poured into North Carolina’s children. You would honor us, and reflect positively on your own family issues stands, to name Tom Jarrell judge.”

Jarrell got the job and was reelected in 2002. As of June 30, the judge had raised $28,619 toward his second reelection campaign, including $4,000 contributions from a lawyer, a beverage and tobacco salesman and a healthcare professional.

O’Hale, a 37-year-old mother who resigned from her job as a Guilford County assistant district attorney in 2001 to have children, stresses her humble roots and Korean-American identity.

“I came from a working-class family,” she said. “We had ten people living in one house at one time. Sometimes I was the only non-white person besides my sister in a school. I’ve seen my parents work ten-to-twelve-hour days seven days a week.”

O’Hale’s father runs a tae kwon do school. Her mother worked as a cashier and ran a clothing store on Summit Avenue before a heart attack forced her to sell the business. O’Hale went into the third quarter of 2006 with $10,334 in her campaign budget. Much of it came from her husband, lawyer Robert O’Hale, herself and family members, including thousand-dollar contributions from In Sook Yu of Greensboro, Durham clothier Hung Taek Yu and Los Angeles businessman Il Taek Yu.

“I think the courts need to represent all the diversity in Greensboro,” O’Hale said. “I would be the first Asian-American district court judge in North Carolina. I think people would trust the courts more if they saw people that looked like them on the bench.”

Jarrell declined to speculate on how he and his opponent might handle cases differently based on their respective backgrounds.

“I don’t mention my opponent all day long,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything. I have no idea how she would approach a case. I bring all my experience to the bench. I treat everyone as fairly as possible.”

He points with pride to a monitoring report issued by Court Watch in December 2005 to review judges’ handling of domestic cases.

“Judge Jarrell’s overall performance was excellent,” the report found. “He spoke in a loud, clear voice, made sure both parties fully understood his orders, and explained court procedures. He issued protective orders, and explained procedures. He issued protective orders when warranted, and was willing to issue custody and child support orders when requested. However, Judge Jarrell should consider explaining to the courtroom why he is late when he does not arrive on time.”

Jarrell explained: “On the day that I was late for court I was handling two courtrooms. I was doing not only domestic violence cases. We were short a judge. I absolutely should have explained to folks, ‘Hey, I’m running back and forth between two courts and I’m sorry to inconvenience you.’ I do that now. I’m known as a judge who will pitch in and help out with cases.”

Jarrell also won plaudits for taking proactive steps to expunge an arrest record for High Point Central High School student Quincy Thomas. The quarterback had found his prospects for playing college football in jeopardy after he was falsely arrested for a robbery at Sir Pizza in 2001. Jarrell was commended by the High Point Human Relations Commission for coming forward to help Thomas clear his name.

Jarrell said that notwithstanding his Christian upbringing, he leaves religion at the door when he dons his judicial robes, and closely scrutinizes any character witness who testifies on behalf of a defendant whether the witness is a member of the clergy or not. He has encountered religious minorities in his courtroom and the experience has not always been positive.

“I’ve had a couple child custody cases where one party was a Wiccan,” Jarrell said. “This woman was sprinkling something out of a purple bag on my car in the parking lot and attempting to cast a spell on me. She was arrested for something else before her case was decided. That certainly made that case easy to decide.

“The Wiccan scared me,” the judge added. “The bailiff told me I was supposed to die in a fiery car crash.”

Jarrell declined to say whether his experience would prejudice him against a Wiccan or pagan defendant in the future.

“I am absolutely forbidden from answering your question,” he said. “The handbook of judicial conduct prohibits me from commenting on that. People deserve an impartial judge. I can’t stake myself out.”

While some might see Jarrell’s opponent as being at a disadvantage because she has no judicial experience, O’Hale portrays her recent maternity leave as an asset.

“I’ve been at home for the past couple years,” she said, “and I think that’s to my benefit in that if I went straight from the district attorney’s office to judge, I think I would be more likely to favor the prosecution side in criminal cases. I spend a lot of time talking to my husband who is a defense attorney, and that makes me even-minded. There is no black and white; there is gray. And I think as DA you tend to see more black and white.”

O’Hale added that she would be more sensitive to children’s needs because one of her own children is disabled.

“My philosophy would be to be fair, honest and approachable,” she said. “I would be fair to everyone regardless of whether they’re represented or not. I wouldn’t judge them by their appearance or attire.”

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