I would have loved to have been involved in the conversation about leadership that recently took place between Rotarians Nancy Gordon and Willis Whichard. Judge Gordon opined that leaders are born to leadership, while former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Whichard maintained that leadership skills can be learned. Either way, it’s clear that Monday’s speaker, Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey, walks the leadership walk convincingly.
Morey, a swimmer on the 1976 women’s Olympic team, recounted two memorable experiences involving Rotary Club. First, her father invited her to his Indiana Rotary Club for a talk by Hall of Famer and Indiana University swim coach James “Doc” Counsilman. Morey, just nine years old, was spellbound and sought Doc’s autograph on a napkin, which she confessed hung on her bedroom mirror for years. Later, she would be coached by Doc himself in preparation for competition in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.
Her second experience with Rotary Club was as an international student, traveling to Japan during her high school years. “The impact that Rotary Club members have on young people’s lives is incredible,” she emphasized. “Don’t ever take that for granted.”
Her athletic experience helped her land a job after college as the first female investigator with the NCAA. Her responsibilities frequently brought her to the Triangle, but mostly through the Durham area as she travelled often to Clemson, inquiring into multiple reports of infractions in the college’s athletic department. In 1987, she decided to move to Durham, and was hired by Ron Stephens, the County District Attorney. Morey was assigned to juvenile court, “where you can’t really embarrass anyone when you make a mistake,” she commented wryly.
The next logical step in her career would have been in traffic court, then on to district criminal court. “But I just said, ‘oh, well…’ and stayed in ‘juvey’,” she said. “And what I have learned there about the types of adversity kids can overcome is eye-opening and heart-stopping.”
Then-Governor Jim Hunt was campaigning to reform North Carolina’s court system, “cracking down on punks and thugs.” What he didn’t realize, Morey explained, is that crime is not about the headlines we read. At the time, there were more than 1,500 youth in training schools charged with misdemeanor crimes such as shoplifting or even running away from home. Morey encouraged Hunt to join her in a juvenile courtroom to see first-hand the situations many of the kids were coming from. She points out that North Carolina is the only state in the nation that charges 16 year olds as adults, “So they’re not on equal footing with their peers in other states. It hampers their ability to find a good job – we must stop criminalizing our children.” Today, there are fewer than 230 juveniles in training schools.
Morey recounted the story of a young woman who was cited for littering, then failed to appear in court for the infraction. An arrest warrant was issued, and the girl was assessed a $500 bond. While the case was later dismissed, “she admitted her behavior was stupid, but there’s still a charge on her record,” Morey says. “To what end? Other states have juvey systems that try to rehabilitate and help young people.”
Morey’s unique misdemeanor diversion program requires juveniles to attend a court session where the judge “sentences” a 16-year-old. “The point I’m trying to make is that it could happen to anyone,” she says. “Most of these citations are for misdemeanors.” Over 200 teens have been through the program; 98% of them have no record, and no new charges against them. Pre-trial release programs have also helped to reduce the jail population. “It’s taken the work of a lot of caring and compassionate people, including City and County elected officials,” she says.
Morey wishes she could “fix” troubled neighborhoods in Durham. “When kids have to survive in a toxic family environment, the deck is stacked against them,” she says. Until the court system is viewed as being an equal part of the governing system as far as funding is allocated, she says her hands are tied. “Kids in our community have basic needs that are not being met. I’ve served 17 years as a judge, and while I will say it has sometimes been thankless, it’s nevertheless been a great opportunity.” Her leadership is very much appreciated in Durham.
Submitted by Carver Weaver