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Law Talk with Bill Powers - Honorable Lucy Noble Inman Episode 1 - Part 3

The Honorable Lucy Noble Inman of the North Carolina Court of Appeals joins Law Talk with Bill Powers, discussing:

  • Standards of Review
  • Findings of Fact
  • Trial Techniques
  • Preserving the Record on Appeal

Once again, the court can do this. Let's issue an order and ask for supplemental briefing on an issue to give everybody a fair shot to be heard on it. And then let's schedule oral argument after we have supplemental briefing. This happens a lot in constitutional cases as well or cases in which the Supreme Court has issued a landmark decision and the court of appeals is left to decipher how does that affect other cases. We may ask the parties, the counsel, to submit supplemental briefs so that we don't have to send this case up to ... It's going to go to the Supreme Court and we're kind of flying blind in deciding what to do.

Before either the oral argument or the date that a case has "occurred" without oral argument, in an ideal world the judge who's assigned to that case, and judges are assigned to write opinions by the senior judge presiding on the panel. Most judges just go one, two, three by seniority. They don't cherry pick who's going to write an opinion. The judge who is going to be responsible in writing in the opinion will have prepared. The other judges will have prepared and we'll have a tentative vote, a tentative, "This is what I'm thinking." It's not public. It's, in fact, quite confidential. It is for the purposes of the judges having a conversation.

When judges really have exhausted all the time and effort they have and they're still unsure, there's a phrase called as the law allows or ALA. Especially if a judge is feeling that uncertain about a case, that's a time to dig in more. Now, another judge may say in conference, "Well, that's troubling you but you've overlooked X, Y, and Z." And then the judge who was ALA says, "Oh okay. In that case, I can decide it." But each judge needs to think about the issues presented before the day for oral arguments because those are also the day that the judges will first have a conference about that case.

So by the time lawyers come to the court to present oral arguments or by the time a case is set to be heard and considered by a panel, a good deal of work has already gone into it. I will say that that was certainly part of the learning curve going from a superior court judge to a court of appeals judge. A superior court judge just gets to decide things. But the court of appeals, you actually have to collaborate. You actually have to work with others and that can take some time. I do find that the more time ... You've heard an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. An ounce of preparation before oral argument for the judge or an ounce of preparation before the heard date is worth a pound of work after that heard date.

Because if you're not prepared beforehand, you don't know what questions you may have if it's orally argued. You don't know what questions you may have and it's not set for oral argument. Now you've heard it and you could go back and ask for oral argument, but it's going to take longer. After the judges confer, the judge who was assigned to write the opinion, unless that judge is in the minority, drafts a proposed majority opinion that's circulated to the other two judges. If the other two judges concur and you have a unanimous opinion, it's usually going to be filed by the court much sooner than a case in which the judges disagree. At the court of appeals we give the highest priority to cases involving children.

Those are juvenile cases and these cases of abuse, neglect, and dependency that have to do with where a child is going to live. We try to give those priority and our internal goal is to issue those decisions within one month of when they are heard. Our internal goal for other decisions is to have them issued within 90 days or three months of when they're heard.

Bill Powers: Right. There are different reasons for all these. For example, juvenile cases, cases involving custody, things of that nature, the polar star, the North Star for juvenile cases involves the best interests of the child, which in a contract dispute the timing may be important, but imagine if you're trying to decide whether one parent has sole physical and legal custody and one parent doesn't have visitation. So there's that. Some cases do get placed higher up in the docket.

Judge Inman: Or there's that some judges could get through in 45 minutes is taking another judge five hours. That's not the right pace. So just striking the balance and knowing which issues really need special attention and which issues are already governed by a precedent and we can just get on with it.

Bill Powers: Yeah. Believe it on not, I don't really mind the ponderous judges. I prefer it as opposed to the opposite of that, I guess I'll say. I travel a fair amount across North Carolina. I've been to a lot of different counties to see how we handle court per jurisdiction. there are cultural differences. In Charlotte where I'm primarily based, we have the benefit of Trial Court Administrators Office. We've got calendaring protocols that were actually used nationwide as examples for things like drug court and we have a family court and we have domestic violence court.

So a lot of our time of handling things, especially in superior court where you're doing pleas, everything has already been worked out and negotiated. It's a matter of making sure the client understands the terms and conditions of the plea, again, subject to the discretion of the court are pretty much already set. Let me ask you a question. The responsibility you bear as a superior court judge and court of appeals, as a lawyer I have to pace myself. How do you pace yourself?

Judge Inman: Well, pacing is really important for the fairness of the process, to make sure that a judge isn't making a decision without thinking through all the factual and legal issues that must be addressed. Also pacing affects other people in the courtroom, like the jurors for example. It really just comes from experience. I don't think there's any way you can learn this without just having the experience, being able to know which issues are black letter law, can be decided on the spot, which issues are going to take more time. If you have jurors, we don't want to stop the trial and they're just sitting there in the jury box or be sent back to the jury room for more minutes in the day than they are in the courtroom. So it's a matter of logistics and a matter of prioritizing the legal issues.

Bill Powers: Right. Again for law students, when there is a legal issue sometimes we address those legal issues, a dispute between the litigants, we address them in pretrial motions outside. There's no juror in the box. It's just the court reporter and the courtroom staff and witnesses. There are other times though, and we see this especially in criminal cases, where the judge says, "I've seen your pretrial motion. I'm going to wait to rule on that." Which I get. It is a bit frustrating though because then there is this balance between wanting to be fully heard and we got a jury sitting back in what may be a very boring ... I've never seen a really comfortable juror room, maybe one or two.

But there's a balance between not wanting to wear them out. What about work/life balance issues for you as a judge? What do you do?

Judge Inman: Well, you may not be surprised to hear that balancing work and personal life is a lot easier for a judge than for a lawyer. The judges are in charge of the daily court schedule. We don't have clients calling after hours. We don't, I don't think, carry the same burden that lawyers do of if you just work on this issue all night, maybe I can make the facts and the law beneficial to my client. There's not the duty of moving a mountain. So it's easier to have the balance.

Trial judges have to be available at all hours for law enforcement officers, for applications for search warrants, but they come to our houses. We don't have to get up and go anywhere.

Bill Powers: I didn't realize that. So they come to your house to get a warrant?

Judge Inman: They do. I mean they do. Not surprisingly, a lot of police operations happen late at night or if they happen even at 5 p.m. it might take until 11 p.m. to have the application prepared correctly. So yes, law enforcement officers come to the judge's houses and the judge has a responsibility to say, "Well, just because I got up at 2 a.m. and just because you're here doesn't mean I'm going to sign this warrant unless it meets the criteria." So you have to do that.

I'd say the biggest challenge for judges in terms of work/life balance is what you've probably heard it referred to as compassion fatigue. We see awful, awful cases. No jury verdict, no criminal sentence is going to make whole someone who's lost a loved one or a child who's been abused. For me, physical exercise has really been the best way to kind of turn that off. When I was a superior court judge and 10 years younger than I am now, I ran a lot. I had picked up that discipline in law school and thought, "If I flunk out of law school at least I'll have strong legs." So I ran a lot. Now I walk and jog very slowly.

I like to play a game called pickleball. It's like the old man's tennis because it's a great way to hang out with friends and get great belly laughs without sitting and drinking. So all of those physical things, for me, are the best way to keep that balance. When my children were young the most difficult thing was being out of town and not seeing them during the week. There's no way I could have done it without my husband, just no way. But I did try to make plans for weekends for us to do things that would take us away from screens, away from phones. But I again couldn't have done it without so many other people's help.

Bill Powers: Sure. It just goes to show law students that it doesn't matter how smart you are and whether you're on law review, everyone's always afraid they're going to fail out of law school.

Judge Inman: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Bill Powers: That's normal. That's normal. Well, Your Honor, this may be a good time to put a pin in it. If I could impose upon you, I'd like to do another segment of Law Talk with you. So I'm going to sign off right now. I'll ask everyone to listen to part two of Law Talk with Judge Inman.

Judge Inman: Thank you so much for having me.

Announcer: You've been listening to Law Talk with Bill Powers, your resource for answers to your most pressing legal questions on your time. Ready to discuss your matter now? Call 704-342-HELP for your free and totally confidential consultation. That's 704-342-4357. Law Talk with Bill Powers is an educational resource only. The information presented on this podcast does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for consulting with an attorney. Every situation is unique, therefore you should always consult with a licensed attorney before making legal decisions. Thanks for listening.

<< Part 2

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