Insider Spotlight: A Judge Comes Off the Bench

Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, sits in his office at the North Carolina General Assembly on March 15, 2017. The first-term legislator defeated a well-known incumbent to win the House District 40 seat by a margin of only 384 votes in November. (Clifton Dowell |

By Lauren Horsch |

RALEIGH — A day after the polls closed in November, newly-elected Rep. Joe John received a tweet with a simple message: “please heal our state.” That tweet — which didn’t receive any likes or retweets — still sticks with him. Months into his freshman term as the District 40 representative, John can still reference it.

“That’s a pretty serious and awesome responsibility and challenge,” he said. “And I’ve tried to take that very seriously and place the common good at the forefront and more partisan considerations somewhere more down the line. And quite frankly, not everybody here does that.”

Before winning his seat, John had worked in both the judicial and executive branches of government. In the judicial branch he served in the district attorney’s office before making his way to the bench, first as District Court Judge and then as a Resident Superior Court Judge. In the 1990s he was elected to the Court of Appeals, where he served until 2001.

After leaving the judiciary, John joined the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2008. In 2010 he was appointed by then Attorney General Roy Cooper to oversee the State Crime Lab to improve the lab’s performance after serious problems were found with how blood evidence was handled in some criminal cases from 1987 to 2003. In 2011 he was named the director of the lab and served in that capacity until 2014.

So why, after decades of public service, did he run for office? That’s an easy question for him — he wasn’t ready for retirement, or as he said, the rocking chair.

“I guess temperamentally I’m just better suited with being active and having a focus,” he said. “I’ve for awhile had the legislature in the back of my mind … And the situation developed that I really wasn’t doing anything else and the election was evolving.”

After working in both the judicial and executive branches, where he enforced and implemented laws, John thought that his experience could help improve future laws as they were being written. So he ran against and defeated incumbent Marilyn Avila. It was a close race — only 384 votes separated the two.

“I think (my experience) has been a help, and there have been bills … that we have debated in which I could offer personal experience,” John said. Indeed he did. His first speech on the floor was in opposition of House Bill 100, which would make North Carolina District and superior Court elections partisan.

In that speech, he said: “I stand here, Mr. Speaker, like some other members, as one who prevailed in a very ugly, partisan election. But unlike any other member here, I also stand here as one who has served for nearly 25 years as a District Court, Superior Court and Court of Appeals Judge in the Courts of North Carolina. Despite the disturbing notion that creeps up regularly in our media … I was not, and the good men and women who serve as judges today in our state are not, are not, Mr. Speaker, partisan politicians …”

John said attacks on the judiciary — both in North Carolina and in the nation — are in vogue these days. He worries about the attempted politicization of the judicial branch. “The role of the judiciary is to be an independent, totally-independent, monitor of matters that come before individual judges,” he said.

On Thursday afternoon Cooper vetoed HB-100, saying in his veto message that “we need less politics in the courtroom, not more.”

As a Democratic state representative of Wake County, John now has the opportunity to express his points of view. One of those views is on independent redistricting. He is a co-sponsor of House Bill 200, which looks to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission. But he’s also working on a bill of his own that would include retired members of the judicial branch on the redistricting commission. John said because experienced judges have had to be impartial throughout their careers, they might be better suited for such a position.

And for John, one of the most pressing issues in the General Assembly this session is the “very deep partisan divide.” However, he sees some of the tides of partisanship changing.

“I think some of our newer members from the Democratic Party are doing our best to reach across the aisle and develop relationships — maybe more likely with the newly elected Republicans — to see if we can’t meet in the middle somewhere on some of these more contentious issues and move our state forward instead of remaining stagnant,” John said.

At the end of the day when he leaves Jones Street and returns home, John is a family man.

“I’ve always been a strong believer in family,” he said. “That is absolutely the number one value to me.”

Lauren Horsch writes for Reach her at or @LaurenHorsch