Program Report: Elaine O’Neal

One of my favorite things about Rotary programs is that we frequently get to hear from the best, the brightest, the first-time achievers in our community, and Monday’s speaker was no different. Rotarian and retired District Court Judge Nancy Gordon introduced her colleague, Durham native Elaine O’Neal, crediting her with “making our community’s legal system stronger and better” during her tenure on the bench.

Having grown up on Morehead Avenue near downtown, O’Neal graduated from Hillside High School then went on to complete an undergraduate math major followed by a law degree at North Carolina Central University. She worked in private practice from 1991 until 1994 when she became a district court judge for the 14th Judicial District. In 2002, she became the first woman appointed as chief judge of district court, and upon her election to Superior Court in 2010, she also became the first female resident superior court judge in Durham.

Speaking of experiences in her more than 20 years as a practicing judge, she related her need to help change the legal system from the inside, helping to address the disparities she saw daily. In civil court, she was often the only person of color in the room; at the other end of the hallway in criminal court, it was the exact opposite. “You would never see a courtroom that looks like the make-up of this Rotary club,” she says, “and that is unconscionable. Class and race can go hand and hand at times.”

Nancy Gordon introduced Elaine O’Neal

“The courtroom represents another culture altogether, where every day the worst possible kind of human drama is being played out,” she continued. “We need to not be so separate from one another that we ignore the human issues that we see every day. Love, mercy, grace, and kindness never go out of style, and it’s a choice we make. I hold these things in my heart and search for peace, and I encourage all of you to do the same.”

“The truth stands on its own – you know it when you hear it,” O’Neal said. “It causes you to self-govern. And when you can’t self-govern, then you have the law.”

O’Neal is deeply troubled by the lack of educational opportunities in North Carolina’s under- and un-represented cities and towns, crediting NC Central Law School with providing unique and relevant opportunities for first-generation attorneys, particularly for students of color. She pointed proudly over her shoulder to the Durham Courthouse, saying “that bench is full of talented Eagle graduates.”

So when her alma mater came calling last year looking for an interim law school dean, O’Neal couldn’t say no. “But you don’t always know what you’re getting into,” she added wryly. Keenly aware that Central was facing pressure from the American Bar Association regarding falling graduation rates and below-average LSAT entrance scores, she felt called to lead a new generation of attorneys. Her goal? One hundred percent pass rate for NCCU students taking the bar on their first attempt.

When questioned about Durham’s gentrification, she responded with her characteristic candor and sincerity, saying “It can be done so that everyone wins – it’s not rocket science! We have to be more intentional; gentrification is not bad in and of itself. When people are displaced (by growth), we have to give them a place to go.”

In conclusion, she smiled and held up her forefinger and thumb with just a pinch of space between them. “We have just about this much time on this planet,” she says. “We don’t have to make it so hard.”

Submitted by: Carver C. Weaver

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