Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Honorable John J. Carroll, III Presiding

It doesn’t matter if you are a civilian or if you work in the legal arena:  Judges can be pretty scary folks.  They have a lot of power and they command a lot of respect.  Of course, a person can command respect until they are blue in the face, but they still have to earn it.  I’ve practiced law for nearly ten years and I’ve never dealt with a judge who earned my respect more than the Honorable John J. Carroll, III.

Of course, let’s not forget that I was categorically, tee totally, two hundred percent scared to death of Judge Carroll for the first two years of my practice.

My first trial was in front of Judge Carroll.  Rather than rehash the horror yet again, feel free to go back and read my blog entry entitled Recreational Pharmaceuticals, Boating and a Busload of Nuns.  I didn’t name him in the entry, but he was the Judge. 

To make a long story short, my father decided that a “slam dunk” Boating While Impaired case would be a good way to throw me in the water headfirst without a life jacket in sight.  I remember walking down to the courthouse with Dad while I tried to cram as many facts into my head as possible and still successfully put one foot in front of the other.  I’d heard of Judge Carroll before, but that was about the extent of it.  As we traveled, Dad suddenly volunteered, “Judge Carroll is a great guy.  He used to be in the JAG Corps.  Actually, he still is in JAG, he’s in the Reserves.” 

It was at that point that I tripped, dropped the file and nearly threw up all over Hell and half of Georgia.  I didn’t have any real experience with the military, but the notion of the JAG Corps did not foster any warm and fuzzy notions.  I’d rather hoped for a judge who would laugh and shake his or her head indulgently as I made the inevitable mistake here and there during my first trial.  No, I was suddenly in the sequel to A Few Good Men.

Well, suffice it to say that the “slam dunk” trial went down in glorious flames.  In retrospect, I don’t think it had quite so much to do with me as it did with the fact that my client had the proverbial red hands, but—regardless—Judge Carroll was not amused.  I swore I thought I even saw him roll his eyes a couple of times and I came to find out later that I was exactly right. 

I didn’t even get to make a closing argument!  As I started to stand up, Judge Carroll made a hand motion for me to keep my seat and proceeded to quickly and inexorably find my client guilty.  That gesture started a longstanding tradition between me and Judge Carroll:  I never gave one single closing argument in front of him.  I just quit trying after a while.

The man did not pull any punches in the courtroom.  He let the defendants have it when they needed it and, if the situation called for it, he’d let the attorneys, the arresting officers and the victims have it as well.  Judge Carroll was very fair, but he meant business and I just couldn’t keep it together around him.  I’d always forget something in my nervous rush to finish up a case and get the heck out of his courtroom which only caused me to look like an even bigger airhead.

What I didn’t realize at the time was the Judge Carroll had a very good sense of humor.  He quickly figured out that he scared the bejeezus out of me and he had himself some fun.

One day many, many moons ago, I was sitting with a couple of attorneys in the office behind courtroom 302.  I was writing something, so I sat behind the desk in the judges’ chair—I will caveat here it's not unheard of to walk into an office behind a courtroom in New Hanover County and see an attorney sitting at the judge's desk.  Suddenly, Judge Carroll walked in all dressed up for court and I sprang out of that chair like my butt was on fire.  Informality be damned, I was in Judge Carroll’s seat.

Judge Carroll laughed at my jumpiness and waived for me to sit down.  He told me that I was in the chair first, so I had dibs.  Accordingly, I sat back down.

A couple of weeks later, several of us were back in the same spot and I was again sitting behind the desk trying to figure out restitution for a particular case.  Judge Carroll came in all ready for business and I said hello to him, but I made no motion to get out of the seat based upon our conversation weeks earlier. 

As I went back to my mathematical calculations, I felt someone leaning over me.  I looked up to see the Judge.  He said, “Mrs. Council, once was excusable, but twice shows disrespect.”

I sprang up out of that chair so quickly and with so much force that I nearly sent it flying out of the glass window behind me.  I sputtered out apologies while Judge Carroll turned all red in the face...from suppressing laughter rather than rage. 

I also remember the day that I stopped being quite so scared of Judge Carroll.  I was pregnant with Baby Belle 1 and I had really nasty morning sickness.  I didn’t advertise my unease, but my pale and sweaty face spoke for me.  I was in Felony District Court and I had one case left.  For some reason, my client wasn’t listed on the travel roster from the jail, so I had to jump through all of the hoops necessary to get his posterior to court. 

I’d waited for hours and I was getting sicker by the minute.  I’d kind of propped myself up in a jury seat.  Finally, my client was present and we were ready to rock and roll.  Just as we stood before the bench the #%$@ing fire alarm went off.  The bailiffs moved to take my guy back while everyone else filed out of the room and I nearly fell to my knees and cried.

Judge Carroll looked over at me and said, “I don’t smell any smoke, do you, Mrs. Council?”

Hopeful, I said, “No sir.”

He said, “And I suppose that you have a pretty good ability to smell given your current state.”

Cautiously rejoicing, I said, “Yes, sir.”

So we stood there and plead the guy to the tune of the fire alarm.  I didn’t even think that the Judge had noticed my problem and there he was being all chivalrous.

Shortly after that, Judge Carroll was called to duty in Iraq.  My heart broke for him when I thought of his wife and children, but I was truly amazed at the Judge’s calm acceptance of the situation.  I imagined that lots of folks would wail, flail and gnash their teeth at the prospect of leaving a family and career to go into a war zone, but he unquestioningly stood up to meet his duty head-on.  I have no doubt that leaving his family made his heart very heavy, but John Carroll made a commitment to his Country and his Country was calling it due. 

While the rest of us sat in our nice cushy offices, Judge Carroll was in a military compound in a war torn Third World Nation.  While we worried about getting rained on as we ran down to court, Judge Carroll had to don full body armor to protect against snipers every single time he stepped outside.  While we tried our cases in nice, quiet and controlled courtrooms, Judge Carroll disposed of cases in a trailer to the frequent sounds of gunfire and bomb detonation.

We were all thrilled when Judge Carroll made it home safe and sound—although we were undoubtedly not as thrilled as he.  To be perfectly honest, I worried about how he would be in the courtroom when he returned.  He was actually quite laid back:  Not being in Iraq really seemed to agree with him.   

Judge Carroll spent the following years just like the years he’d spent before his deployment:  Cutting through the nonsense and swiftly delivering justice.  He still had his fun—the shivering Christmas and summer interns provided fertile ground for the planting of mock terror.  He was also human and had his pet peeves—one never took a Driving During Revocation charge in front of Judge Carroll unless one had absolutely no choice or perhaps secretly harbored ill will against their client. 

Judge Carroll had all the qualities of a great Judge:  He was smart, impartial and there was actually a pretty big heart under that gruff exterior.  Maybe it was the military training, but he also had a fantastic work ethic.  Before he was sick, he worked as long as he was needed and he worked hard.  Recently, there were days where he clearly wasn’t feeling well, but he continued to work without complaint.

I’ll say it:  It’s not fair.  It’s not fair that God called him away from his wife and his four children.  It’s not fair that God called him away from his friends and his life’s work.  That’s where faith comes in.  There has to be a reason, but God doesn’t have to tell us if He doesn’t want to...He is God, after all.  Actually, I think Judge Carroll is still with us:  I surely wouldn’t want to be a habitual unlicensed driver on the road with an angel like that on my tail.

Rest in peace, Your Honor.


  1. Ashley...that is a great post. You described Judge Carroll to a T. I left Wilmington this past summer to start law school but it feels like just yesterday I was in his court room. I can't believe he's really gone!

  2. Thanks, guys. He was one of the best.

  3. Great tribute to a wonderful man and friend! I will miss his smile and happy personality!