In June 1995, a young lawyer named J. Calvin Hill parked his car in downtown Asheville and walked toward the Buncombe County Courthouse. Hill, who had been working for several years as a defense attorney in eastern North Carolina, had been recruited by the Buncombe public defender’s office. As he strolled to his job interview on the beautiful summer day, his impression of Asheville formed.
“I said to myself on my way down here, ‘You know, I just really like this place,’” Hill, 61, recalled. “I had made up my mind: I’m going to move to Asheville, whether I get this job or not.”
Fortunately for Hill, he did get the job and moved to Asheville later that summer. In doing so, he became the first African American lawyer in the county’s public defender’s office in about 20 years. In 2007, former Gov. Mike Easley appointed Hill to the 28th District Court bench; Hill has since been elected to the post four times, most recently in 2020.
Hill was appointed chief District Court judge in 2010 by former N.C. chief justice Sarah Parker and has been reappointed by three subsequent chief justices.
Hill is modest about being the subject of an interview — “I’m pretty much the same I’ve been for 25 years,” he said. But he sat down with Mountain Xpress in a conference room at the courthouse to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic, the School Justice Partnership, racial justice and how he spends his off-hours.
This interview has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.
What impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on the 28th Judicial District? Have cases been delayed?
Do we have some backlog? Yes. But in Buncombe County, our backlog really is pretty minimal. From the beginning of COVID until now, our courts have not had to close down a single time for COVID-related issues. And that’s because our stakeholders inside the courts have gone with good advice from county, state and national health care people and taken their advice about masks and distancing. As a result, our courts have operated slower, but they’ve operated consistently. Compared with other counties, Buncombe is in really, really good shape.
You were integral in getting Asheville’s School Justice Partnership started in March 2020. The pandemic set different priorities for schools, and the court had other priorities, so can you remind us what the SJP will entail and give a status update?
There is lots of data that indicates that the more contact a child has with the court system, the more likely it is for them to have further and extended contact with the court system. This SJP is basically an agreement between court system people, law enforcement people and academics that we would do everything we could to keep kids out of the court system.
There are two components to that. The first is graduated response, which says if a child does something and it’s not violent — it’s not hurting anybody — maybe get a parent involved initially. Maybe a guidance counselor and a principal next; maybe let the school resource officer have a talk with them next. And if you fail at all three of those stages, you maybe do have to bring this kid into court.
There’s also lots of data that says children of color get put into the court system for behavior that other children do not. So let’s monitor this, see if that’s happening in our schools and try to be sure that the same behavior gets the same reaction for all kids.
We were literally just getting this thing in place when this pandemic hit. Now that things are back to normal, we’re going to ramp the SJP back up.
Over the past year, Asheville has seen numerous racial justice protests. Do you believe the protests have furthered a redress of inequalities here?
I try to stay away from whatever is the day’s politics. Of course, I do have my personal opinions about it, which are not important. My role as the chief District Court judge here is important. And a lot of the racial issues — these racial tensions and these types of things — some of them will make their way into the courts.
If you have judges spouting their personal opinions about these racial issues, then it could justify one side or the other believing that they will get shown favoritism when they come into court. I don’t want anybody to say, “Well, he stated a position on this one way or another, and I don’t feel comfortable with him hearing this case.” It’s probably a good idea for judges to keep their personal opinions about that to themselves. And so that’s what I’m going to do.
In 2017, the N.C. General Assembly voted to put party affiliations on the ballot for Superior Court and District Court judicial elections. Are you concerned about the role of judges becoming increasingly partisan?
I think it was a mistake to designate judges as Republican and Democrat. I think any elected official should serve all constituents, but especially judges. You just can’t let politics come into your decision-making and have people believe that these courts are operating with integrity. We want people to believe that they come in and the evidence that needs to be heard is heard, that everybody gets to say what they need to say.
I have found that over the time I have been a judge, with the majority of the people, if you let them say what they want to say and they get all their information out and you make a decision based on the law, most people accept that, even if they’re unhappy with your decision. If they believe they were heard, that makes a difference to them.
The General Assembly will redraw election district lines this year based on the results of the 2020 census. What do you hope voters understand about that process and how it relates to the judiciary?
We had a situation the last time I was getting ready to run, in 2020. There were some people in the legislature who were looking at ways to gerrymander Buncombe County. I would have been affected specifically, and probably more so than any of my colleagues. I live out in Candler, outside of the city limits. And the way they wanted to draw those lines at that time, none of my constituents inside Asheville city limits would have been able to vote for me. Well. I’m African American. Out in Candler, there are not a whole lot of African Americans. And the district I would have been in then would have been highly Republican.
Let me just say that it didn’t happen. The legislature decided not to do it, and the whole county got to vote for me. I didn’t have any competition, so it didn’t make any difference. But had someone run against me, it could have made a difference if that gerrymander had gone through.
What do you think is the most pressing issue for Buncombe County right now?
Lots of stuff concerns me. But the most pressing issue now in Buncombe is all of this racial tension that we have. A few years back, it seemed like race was not at the top of the card. It seemed like people were accepting of other people, regardless of their color.
Then over the last several years, we learned that this race issue was not as far below the surface as we thought. Just a little scratch in that surface and some people are comfortable saying what they really felt, and we found out that it still was a real — it still is a real — issue.
The policing issue, which is not really separate from the race issue, is a big deal. I think this whole “defund the police” idea is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Does law enforcement have some issues that need to be dealt with? Yes, they do. But if something is important enough that you need to take money from the police to fund it, then it’s important enough that you ought to fund it anyway.
If I’m at my residence and two or three people come out there with mental health issues and guns, don’t send me a psychologist. I want the police to come. I’m not saying there’s not a place to send a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but they should certainly be accompanied by the police in the event something goes wrong, as things go wrong a lot. So that’s my only point: I don’t think money should be taken from law enforcement agencies to fund other stuff.
One last question: What is your favorite thing to do in Buncombe County?
I’m a gardener. I’m also probably mostly an introvert. My days are filled with problem-solving, putting out fires. And at the end of the day, when I can get home and plant a tree or clip some roses or mow my yard, and it’s away from people, I’m OK with that.