By Mary Pembleton
After serving more than 25 years as a law clerk, attorney and partner at Robert & Stevens law firm in Asheville, Jacqueline Grant ’92 is gaining a new perspective from the other side of the bench.
Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Grant as a Superior Court judge serving District 28 in Buncombe County in April of 2021.
Grant said the transition from lawyer to judge wasn’t a difficult one; her extensive experience with trial work meant that she was well-versed in a judge’s responsibilities before taking them on herself. But that’s not to say her old job doesn’t occasionally cross her mind in the courtroom. “In the trial when you’re hearing testimony, in your mind you’re thinking, ‘Where’s the objection? Where’s the objection?’” Grant said with a laugh.
Grant, an Asheville native, is enjoying the challenge of her new role. But what she appreciates most is the opportunity to affect the trajectory of a person’s life.
“It’s really neat that you sometimes have the ability as a judge when you’re sentencing, whether it’s from a plea arrangement or a jury verdict, to steer somebody in the right direction,” Grant said.
Grant knew she wanted to be a lawyer after taking a civics class in high school, but it wasn’t until she served as president of the North Carolina Bar Association from 2018 to 2019 that she ever considered the possibility of presiding over a courtroom. As president, Grant attended the National Bar Association conferences with representatives from all over the country who collaborated on approaches to issues like bail reform, access and affordability of legal services, law enforcement issues and minority communities. She then presented potential strategies to local and state lawmakers, as well as the chief justice of North Carolina. “I think it just opened my eyes to different issues and the avenues available that have a greater impact,” she said.
One of those avenues came to light when the Honorable Judge Marvin Pope retired in January 2021. Grant said that several of her peers reached out and encouraged her to consider the position, and when she agreed, they recommended her to Gov. Cooper.
“When Gov. Cooper gets these kinds of recommendations, his office reaches out to the different individuals to say, ‘Would you be interested? Is this something you’d be willing to do?’” Grant said. “Then they do a whole screening process. It’s very in-depth, not just your background. He makes a point of having a long conversation, about things like your philosophy and your approach to judicial reform.”
As for judicial reform, Grant disagrees with what she calls “the mantra of lock ’em up, lock ’em up,” in favor of trying to break the cycle of incarceration. “Some of these crimes are really based on people having addictions, or issues of that nature,” Grant said, “If you put them in prison, and not into a drug treatment program, then you’re not solving the problem, because when they come back out, they’re going to commit the same crimes.”
And Grant’s philosophy is rooted in a foundation of critical thinking, which she developed as a political science major at Western Carolina University. It was at WCU that Grant said the department, which she described as “phenomenal,” challenged her to do the deep research necessary to support her opinions in a debate, a practice that has stayed with her since law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the rest of her career.
“When somebody floats a position, whether it’s a political position or something happening in our legislature like a bill in Congress, I am a person who is going to research the facts,” Grant said.
It is that commitment to the truth, to the law, and to serving her community that led Grant to the bench. And now that she’s there, she’s excited to make a difference.