Wake County Clerk of Court: Jennifer Knox

Clerk of Court filesThe announcement by current Clerk of Court Lorrin Freeman that she is running for Wake County District Attorney now leaves the other major office at the courthouse as an open seat: Clerk of Court. It is not a high profile office for most voters, but it is immensely important in that it is the keeper of the court files for both the criminal and civil divisions of court, acts in a quasi judicial function in foreclosure sales, and is responsible for the appointment of guardians in cases involving minors or people found to be incompetent, among other duties.

The elected Clerk of Court manages an office with five divisions, and dozens of employees, and also handles the finances for the Wake County court system. In the courthouse, the Clerk of Court, along with the top Superior Court and District Court judges and the District Attorney, oversee the court system.

The Clerk of Court really is a manager who needs to interact with all “stakeholders” in the court system, and the public at large who comes to the courthouse for various civil or criminal matters. It is not really a political office. But it candidates run on party tickets.

The real danger is a Clerk of Court who becomes news in his or her own right. In a Republican year, it would be a problem if a Republican with a history of difficulties dealing with judges and her employees were elected. While I did not practice law during her period in office, Republican Jan Pueschel brought unneeded drama to the office. When she ran (and lost) against Lorrin Freeman last in 2010, the News and Observer called her management style brusque, and referred to difficulties Pueschel encountered with Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens and then Chief District Court Judge Joy Hamilton.

Who is running for the 2014 race for Wake County Clerk of Court? Judge Jennifer Knox, as a Republican.

Judge Jennifer Knox to Run for Clerk

Judge Jennifer KnoxJudge Jennifer Knox has served on the Wake County District Court Bench since 2004. She was re-elected in 2008 and in 2012. She is often found in juvenile criminal court and in family court. A graduate of Wingate University near Monroe, NC, Judge Knox earned her law degree at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She then served as an assistant district attorney, before running for the District Court bench in 2004.

What other prominent North Carolinian attended Wingate University (then Wingate Junior College)? Why Jesse Helms, of course. Senator Helms, along with Barry Goldwater, was a father of modern conservatism. Judge Knox is Helms’ granddaughter. While Helms, who passed in 2008, has a reputation as being a social conservative, I’ve noticed no political agenda in Judge Knox other than what you might expect: a tough, no nonsense approach to hearing cases and sentencing.

I have not observed her in juvenile court, but I understand that Judge Knox has a reputation for being a fair and, importantly, efficient, and smart judge. With such a reputation, and the political and family connections that come with being the granddaughter of a legendary North Carolina politician, Judge Knox will be a formidable candidate. The question is, whether she’ll be a good manager. Her judicial style seems to suggest she would be. What the courthouse needs is a no nonsense, no drama Clerk of Court who isn’t in the headlines and who manages employees, the vast majority of which are undercompensated, in a fair and understanding way.

Judge Knox will get a few points bump as a female in a race for which the vast majority of voters will have little interest. She will also benefit from this being a Republican year. I suspect she would get cross party support. She’s seen as a likeable, thoughtful, smart candidate who within an hour of announcing her candidacy on Facebook got 80 “likes” which, by comparison, is more than some candidates for District Attorney have gotten.

UPDATE Correction: A mid-term vacancy in the District Court bench would involve a bar election. Bar elections are basically in-house affairs in the courthouse and with the civil bar. The Governor McCrory then can ignore the bar election and choose any otherwise qualified person he wishes to appoint.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.