Name as it appears on the ballot: Archie Smith
Campaign website: reelectarchiesmith.com
Party affiliation: Democrat
Years lived in Durham County: All of my life – born and raised in Durham, NC
1. In 300 words or fewer, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? What do you understand the role of Clerk of Superior Court to encompass? Why should voters entrust you with this position?
When I was elected to be the Durham County Clerk of Court in 2002, I pledged to devote myself to providing Durham County with the very best Clerk’s office possible. I have kept my word. Some people rise in the morning and have to go to work, I get to go to work as your Clerk. I look forward to each day. The Clerk’s office is the hub of the “wheel of justice”. The Clerk of Court manages and ministerially oversees court operations and the 72 clerk’s office staff members. Courtroom clerks keep up with the minutes of court calendars/cases. Cashiers and bookkeeping clerks maintain financial accountings and integrity as comptrollers. Records and counter clerks process court filings and maintain our records. As Judicial officials, I and my Assistant Clerks render judicial decisions upon a range of cases, for example: Estates, land partition, adoptions, foreclosures, legitimations, incompetency, guardianship of minors, etc. In all of this we are aided by cutting edge technology furnished by the NCAOC and constant continuing education. You do not hear much about our Clerk’s office. Why? Because the Durham Clerk’s office “gets it done”…quietly and right Day after day. And that’s the way I want to keep it.
2. In your view, what are the three most pressing issues facing the Clerk of Superior Court? If elected, what will you do to address these issues?
(1) Staff attrition. Durham County has a roughly 10%/annum attrition rate. Roughly 7 staff members lost each year. Sound like a lot.? Wake County has a 30% attrition rate. Roughly 60 staff members lost each year.
I address this by making every possible effort to provide a workplace environment that is conducive to employee retention. In times of personal stress /emergency, each member of the Clerk’s office knows that the Clerk’s office will extend itself by providing unscheduled time off for the affected clerk to have the time to take care of their personal/family/medical needs. And I and my Assistants contact the affected employee and offer our personal assistance to them if needed. What do you need? How can I/we/the Clerk’s office help you? And we mean it. We look after each other in times of trouble and rejoice when one of us has a bright moment. From in office showers for babies or marriages or office banners for birthdays, we do it. At Christmas, we close the office for a Christmas luncheon and a round of Dirty Santa. Working in an office does not have to be a grind. Our Durham’s Clerk’s office fosters and promotes camaraderie and high morale. We are people helping people…. the public the judicial system. But we are also people who help each other. The days go much better this way.
(2) (2) The proliferation of pro se litigants in non-criminal matters. Let’s face it, there are more people living paycheck to paycheck than ever. Affording a lawyer is out of the question for them. These litigants appear before me regularly and are confronted by a legal system that is oftentimes stacked against them. How do I address this? At the onset, I will ask them if would like to have their cases continued. If that does not work, I will suggest to them that it “might be a good idea” if they continue the case. And then, I tell them about our local Legal Aid Society. Hopefully, they can either secure the services of Legal Aid (or advice from Legal Aid) or another agency (some of our local law schools have clinics) or even a pro bono Attorney. And then I grant a generous continuance. The State Bar does have an expectation of lawyers that they will provide a modicum of pro bono legal services, And, indeed, we do have a significant number of unsung public spirited lawyers who take unpaid clients. And, sometimes, the local Bar has a pro bono lawyer day when people can ask questions. But it’s not an organized, regular, and ongoing service and many who need this service from our local Bar go unserved. I would like to participate in an effort to turn pro bono legal services from the private Bar into a reality. I propose partnering with our Durham County Bar to create an organized, formal pro bono section that will accept cases for lawyers to handle in their individual areas of legal expertise. Legal Aid, Law School Clinics and annual pro bono day is a valiant effort. Sadly, it’s not enough. As a practical aside, our Durham Clerk of Court’s Office has actively given of it’s time in eviction diversion programs sponsored by local government and have partnered with government employees invited to share space in our Clerk’s office to screen each eviction case for eligible families. Not only that, but we have also appended notices of rental payment assistance programs to every eviction case to be served by the Sheriff. Where there is a tool available to help our community and the Clerk’s office can help, we have and will. This philosophy is endemic to our Durham Clerk’s Office.
(3) A third issue facing our Clerk’s Office is not confined to the Durham County Clerk’s Office. It is looming over each of the 100 NC counties statewide. NC is in many ways a more progressive state in terms of its legal system than many of the other 49 states. Many states have legal systems that vary throughout the state with municipal courts, regional or district courts, etc. In 1966, NC created a unified court system that did away with Recorder’s Courts, municipal courts, and the like. Our Courts were unified under the umbrella of The NC General Courts of Justice with a central administrative office located in Raleigh termed “The NC Administrative Office of the Courts”. Colloquially known as the “AOC”, this office dispenses training, equipment, supplies, salaries, employee onboarding and record keeping for every Courthouse and Judicial branch employee in the state. Counties provide Courthouses and infrastructure for their communities. The AOC takes care of the rest. All of this under the leadership of NC’s elected Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court. About 4/5 years ago, a movement began to have NC become the first and (to date) only fully electronic court system in the nation. A tall order! No more paper. It will turn everything the Courts, lawyers, law enforcement, the public, judges, clerks, etc., have done on paper for centuries upside down. And it’s started. Tyler Industries is the contractor charged with developing and implementing this sea change under the rubric of a program known as “Odyssey”. There are three pilot counties tasked with the initial implementation of this ambitious project. There have been delays and revisions. Paper does not want to go away easily. Processes, procedures, computer glitches, record keeping rules, you name it…everything is affected. I have been immersed in this from its infancy and am involved regularly in my role as a long standing (20 years) member of the Rules of Record Keeping Committee which decides and writes procedure and policy for the governance of NC court records. I am up to date on this. That said, it has been of immense help to me to know where we were (or are) concerning the minutiae of best practices in record keeping as we adapt to this new technology and its application. As a single example (and there are many, many more) of how we will have to change how we operate under an electronic court system, I offer the following scenario. A citizen comes in and asks about a name change. We have assembled a self-help “name change package” which our counter clerks in the Special Proceedings section will provide to him/her. They can fill it out on the spot and hand it in. No problem. Under the electronic system, we may not be able to do this. Will we have a public computer kiosk? What about forms, legal work that must be filled out outside the courthouse? Does everyone have a computer? Are they sufficiently versed in its use to prepare their legal documents? It is a grand idea in its scope and farsightedness. But if you are not sufficiently grounded in what the procedures and practices in the Clerk’s office are today, adapting to what will inevitably be hybrid practices before full implementation of the electronic system will prove to be very challenging. I will handle this as I presently do every day: adapt.
3. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective clerk? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.
I have managed the Durham County Clerk’s Office for twenty years. As far as I am concerned, it is the best Clerk’s office in the State. Durham lawyers who practice in other counties are a good gauge of the performance of the Durham County Clerk’s Office. They regularly and consistently tell me how happy they are to get back to Durham because of the difficulties they experience elsewhere. I knew we were on to something when lawyers from other counties echoed these sentiments. But this is anecdotal and smacks of braggadocio which is not seemly. I am, as you can tell, very proud of our office and its people. I can provide you with a more objective criteria: that of my fellow Clerks of Court. My peers. The 100 Clerks has an Association of Clerks of Court. But this organization was not able to efficiently represent the Clerk’s (and the public’s) interests before the Legislature. Nor could it practically unify, educate, and coordinate all 100 Clerks. NC is a big state! So, it was decided that we needed a state agency that focused on matters of concern to the Clerks. The leadership of the Association turned to me to draft enabling legislation to create a new state agency to be known as The NC Conference of Clerks of Superior Court. I undertook this assignment and succeeded in having the necessary legislation passed. Then, Bylaws and a Constitution for this Conference were needed. Once again, I was drafted to compose these instruments. They are still in use today. Afterwards, I was approached and asked to become a Conference officer and was later unanimously elected President of the Clerk’s Conference. The NC Chief Supreme Court Justice has a policy and procedure roundtable wherein one DA, one PD, one District Court Judge, one Superior Court Judge, one Magistrate etc., sit. These men and women meet and advise the Chief Justice on policy, etc. on behalf of their colleagues in the judicial system. I was appointed by the Clerks to be their representative and served in this capacity for twelve years. Today, I sit as a member of the Clerk’s Conference Executive Committee and on The Rules of Record Keeping Committee for the AOC/Clerks and am Chairman of the Clerk’s Constitution and Bylaws Committee. For years I have been (and still am) one of the four Clerks tasked with serving on the Conference of Clerk’s Nominating Committee. This Committee meets and selects the nominee each year to be elected as an officer in the Clerks “line” and who will (nothing unforeseen happening) become, in due time, President of the NC Conference of Clerks of Superior Court. By the objective standards of my elected Clerk colleagues, I qualify as an effective Clerk. My parting remark as to my effectiveness is to point out Durham’s far superior employee retention rate to that of Wake County.
4. If you are challenging an incumbent, in what ways do you believe you could run the clerk’s office more efficiently? If you are an incumbent, what in your record and experience do you believe entitles you to another term?
I promised myself long ago that for so long as I had my enthusiasm for the office, good health and was effective at my work, I would endeavor to continue to serve as Clerk. I am still possessed of those attributes in abundance. I do and will need the voter’s support. With that in hand, I am looking forward to another term in office. This question presumes that I, as the incumbent, might believe that I am entitled to another term. I believe that my career as Durham County’s Clerk has been of benefit to Durham County and I am the best candidate for the job. Entitled? No one has a right/entitlement to a public office. Best qualified? Yes. As to my record and experience, please see the above.
5. This is something of a low-profile office, and many voters may be unfamiliar with the clerk’s tasks, which include not just record-keeping but also judicial functions such as probate and adoptions. What would you tell your voters about your management style? How would you assure them that the office would run effectively under your direction?
Our Clerk’s office employs 72 people, of whom14 are Assistant Clerks (managers) and the remaining 58 are Deputy Clerks. The Assistant Clerks and I meet as a management team on a regular basis and collaborate in management decisions affecting all aspects of operations. The Assistants, in turn, meet with the Deputy Clerks in their respective divisions and coordinate their division’s responsibilities. Each division has a “Person-in-Charge” responsible for oversight of her/his division if their Assistant(s) are absent. We are a team, working together, comparing notes and seeking the best pathways to successfully fulfill our duties. I do not rule by executive fiat and am not an autocrat.
We recruit the very best, brightest, and most qualified candidates we can find from the applicant pools. We do this by way of a panel of Assistants interviewing each applicant. Once the decision is collaboratively reached, we hire our “new” Deputy Clerk. Then we give them the tools and training they need to do their jobs. Once we are satisfied that they are “ready”, we turn them loose under the watchful eye of a veteran Assistant Clerk and let them prove themselves. I delegate departmental management to Assistants who were promoted because, as Deputy Clerks, they have exhibited the skills, qualifications and self-motivation to be relied upon as leaders. I make this decision in consultation with and relying upon the advice of current Assistant Clerks. To work together as a team, it must be this way. I believe that our office has run efficiently during my tenure as Clerk. Based upon our past performances, the voters can rely upon my assurance that sound, responsible oversight of the Clerk’s office will continue on my watch.
6. How will you advocate for additional state funding for the operation of a growing and increasingly burdened court system?
The North Carolina Conference of Clerks of Superior Court speaks for the body of NC’s Clerks of Court in this regard. Our director, assisted by our Legislative Committee and our Resource Committee by way of researched exemplars and objective factfinding broadsides spearhead this effort. When legislation regarding funding the Court system is pending and collaboration with the DA’s Conference, etc. is called for, we cooperate and advocate together. We have had “all hands-on deck” cries from Conference leadership concerning funding in which event every single Clerk who can get away from their office to lobby the legislature and buttonhole legislators show up. Those who can’t, contact their individual legislators by telephone, e-mail, text or in their communities by personal contact. I participate vigorously in these efforts. The Clerks are unified and present our positions concerning court funding with a unified voice.
7. What steps would you take to make the clerk’s office more accessible to the public—for instance, for non-English-speakers or those who work during the day?
We have a full-time interpreter on duty at the Courthouse; in addition, our three Hispanic, Spanish speaking deputy clerks are regularly called upon to help those for whom English is not their first language. Our listings for job applicants, as a matter of course, identify bi-lingual proficiency as a positive qualification for employment at the Clerk’s office.
In response to question (2) above, I proposed a formal pro-bono attorney effort. In like manner, I propose a program of volunteers working in our courthouse to assist and facilitate access to our legal system. Partnering with El Centro Hispano and other community civic organizations, I believe that we can develop a cooperative support system for non-English speakers.
The Clerk’s office has an “Inclement Weather” policy which permits the magistrates office to accept filings, payments, etc. when the Courthouse is closed due to bad weather. This policy could be expanded to accommodate those who work during the day on a year-round basis. Another solution would be to realign the hours the courthouse is open to 12 hours a day for 4 days a week.
8. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.
Durham has changed a lot over the past twenty years. Now, there is a much greater conscious awareness of the benefits of an equitable way of life where people of all races, income levels and sexual orientations co-exist in harmony. In 2004, couples in our LGBTQ community could live together with their kids but not as parents. They were denied the right to adopt. Such unequal treatment under the law adversely affected the social, emotional, and economic security of the parents and their children. Working together with talented lawyers, I initiated a legal process termed “Second Parent Adoption” whereby the relationships of parent(s) and child(ren) could be established. Under the adoption decree, a family was created and recognized for the purposes of SSI benefits, passports, etc. This legal process took root and spread to other jurisdictions in North Carolina. At last, same sex parents were accorded the respect and legal status as all other adoptive families. For this, I was criticized and insulted by some. And probably lost their support. Nonetheless, I knew that it was the moral and ethical thing to do.
I have never faltered in my support of our LGBTQ community. Fast forward to today, Our Supreme Court found that NCGS-50B-(1)(b)(6) did not extend it’s protections to same sex couples and was discriminatory. Nonetheless, the forms used by our Clerk’s offices still contained the proscriptive language and were still in use throughout the state. As a result, Cler’s relying on the outdated form could deny Domestic Violence Protections to the same sex partners in a dating relationship and believe they were following the law. Working together with the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, I appealed directly to the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts to authorize and publish a legal memo to all 100 counties advising of the change in the law and the proper use of the current domestic violence form. The Director, Judge Heath agreed. The memo has been published and distributed statewide. We were able to leapfrog the customary waiting period for form changes. From first joining forces with the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the time taken for results was one week.
It was the right thing to do in 2004 and the right thing to do today.