Matthew Leach of Wilkesboro and Donna L. Shumate of Sparta are the two candidates in this year’s Republican primary for District Court judge seat four in the 23rd Judicial District, which encompasses Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties.
No Democrats are in the race, so the winner of the GOP primary will be the new judge.
Shumate, 52, and Leach, 33, are seeking the judgeship now held by Judge Jeanie Houston of Hamptonville, a Republican who didn’t file for reelection. District Court judges serve four-year terms.
Shumate has been an attorney with a solo general practice in law in Alleghany County since 1993. She was born and raised in Alleghany County and has lived her entire life there except for the years she was away at college. She and her husband, Chris Walker, have been married 28 years and have two children together.
Leach has been an assistant district attorney for the 34th Prosecutorial District, which covers the same counties as the 23rd Judicial District, since October 2013. He grew up Asheboro and has a 4-year-old son in Wilkes.
Why running, qualifications
Explaining why she is a candidate for District Court judge, Shumate said, “Judge Houston, this district’s only female judge, is retiring at the end of this year, leaving a vacant seat. I am running to fill her seat because I would like to serve the people of this judicial district. I have been representing clients in all four counties in this district for many years. In fact, my first capital murder trial was in Wilkes County in 1996 when I served as second chair with Brad Cameron on the case. I believe that my 26 years of experience in all of the practice areas of District Court make me qualified to serve as a District Court judge.”
Leach said he is a candidate “because we need (and I will be) a victim-focused, justice-centered jurist. I will be a judge that, when people walk in the courtroom, they know they will get a fair shake and a just result, without any backroom dealings or outside influences entering into the mix. I am qualified because I have been both a general practice attorney and a prosecutor. I have been on both sides and see the various viewpoints. I will be fair. As a prosecutor, my job is to do justice, plain and simple. That is the same job I will have as a judge, where I will protect the rights of the citizens appearing before me and ensuring those same rights are preserved for all other citizens. I recently became a board-certified specialist in N.C. Criminal Law because I wanted to challenge myself to learn more about the law and become the best lawyer I can be. I promise to continue that as a judge.”
Leach received a bachelor of arts degree with a double major in political science and international studies, with a minor in Hispanic studies, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He attended the Elon University School of Law on a yearly scholarship and graduated with honors.
Shumate received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1990. She received a law degree from Campbell University School of Law in 1993.
Leach’s experience, influences
After graduating from law school, Leach joined a small firm as a general practice lawyer. “District Court work was my bread and butter…. My cases involved criminal defense, family law, Department of Social Services (abuse/neglect/dependency and child support), special proceedings, juvenile defense, civil law and handling whatever walked in the door,” Leach stated. He left that position for his current job as an ADA for the 34th Prosecutorial District. “As an ADA, I have prosecuted cases ranging from homicide to traffic tickets. A significant portion of my time has been in felony District Court, where I was responsible for managing dockets in the hundreds. Now, I principally focus on major drug cases, serious assaults and sex offenses,” he said. This is his first time running for elected office.
Leach said his mock trial coach in high school, attorney Steve Schmidly, “developed my interest in the law as a career, polished my presentation skills and served as a valuable mentor….” He said many cases in his career stand out for him, “but what has struck me the most is the power a lawyer (and the law) has to influence someone’s day by, sometimes, a seemingly insignificant act – simply listening to a client tell you their story or sending a letter on their behalf was enough to make all the difference. My appreciation for the power of the law increased tremendously in those early days.” He said the biggest influence recently has been his friend and colleague, Lee Bollinger, “who taught me numerous, invaluable trial skills, has been a sounding board when discussing cases, and has made me a better lawyer and person.”
Shumate’s experiences, influences
Shumate said, “I have significant experience in criminal law, family law, civil litigation and juvenile law. I have handled everything from speeding tickets to capital murder cases. On the civil side of things, I have represented civil clients in custody actions, equitable distribution cases, divorces, civil disputes involving contracts, construction issues, and real property disputes.”
Shumate continued, “A few years ago, I was involved in a juvenile case that received a lot of publicity nationally and internationally. As a result of that case, I was asked to speak at the American Bar Association Family Law Convention in 2013 in Washington, D.C., on the topic of ‘When Immigration Law and Family Law Collide.’
“I participated in a round table discussion on National Public Radio and was interviewed by the L.A. Times and the Washington Post. I have served as the part-time attorney for Alleghany County for 15 years, representing the Alleghany County Board of Commissioners.” Shumate ran for District Court judge in 2014. She won in the primary and was defeated in the general election.
Shumate said, “Our system of government is set up so that the legislative branch makes the law, not the judicial branch. I do not think it is a judge’s place to try to make the law. I believe a judge should apply the law to the facts of a case. A judge should uphold the law, especially the United States Constitution and all of its amendments.”
Leach said, “A District Court judge should be a neutral finder of facts and then apply the relevant law to those facts. A District Court judge is not a legislator. I would follow the Constitution and N.C. General Statutes as they are written and would be a conservative judge. Finally, I am a firm believer in accountability, when appropriate.”
Qualities a judge should possess
Shumate said, “Any judge needs patience and the ability to listen. Many people come to court for the first time and are unfamiliar with the formalities of court, especially in civil court where people are most unfamiliar with the process. I believe a judge should treat all people with respect and give people an opportunity to be heard before issuing a decision.”
Leach said, “A District Court judge needs to possess a sense of humility. Despite the name, one must be a judge without being ‘judgmental.’ Every case is different and no judge knows everything. A judge has to be willing to listen to the parties with an open mind, without prejudice or bias entering into the equation. A judge should not decide a case before hearing both sides.”
Leach continued, “A judge needs a strong work ethic. Starting court on time, taking reasonable breaks, working together with the other courtroom actors, such as the clerks, and doing one’s best to get through the day’s cases is essential. Court orders should be done quickly to ensure finality and efficiency. A judge must possess and maintain competence. Having a foundation in relevant areas of District Court is important, but a judge must be dedicated to keeping up with changes in the law. The job does not end for the day just because the court session is over.”
Leach added, “A judge must have organizational and administrative skills. Rendering judgments in a case is not the only job. A judge has to manage a court docket/calendar that can number in the hundreds while weighing and balancing the interests of all parties on any given day, which can include attorneys, court personnel, jail staff, inmates, plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, and probation officers, all while moving cases in a just and efficient fashion. To summarize, the ideal judge is a humble one, who shows up, works hard, and does his or her best, every day.”
Shumate belongs to the Peak Creek Church of the Brethren in Laurel Springs and said she has been a church-goer all of her life. She has served on the Church of the Brethren’s national and district boards and also as a trustee at Bethany Theological Seminary. She has played the piano for worship services since she was 16. Shumate teaches young adult Sunday school and is active with her church’s youth group. She has directed vacation Bible school. Her husband is a deacon in their church and she said she has duties associated with that. Shumate is president of the 23rd Judicial District Bar, a position she held one other time previously. She also is a member of the N.C. Bar Association. Shumate formerly served on the boards of the Alleghany Chamber of Commerce, Alleghany Council on Aging, Alleghany Memorial Hospital Foundation and the MILES Job Fund microloan program.
Leach attends church in North Wilkesboro and assists with scripture readings and communion. He is a member of the Wilkes County and the 23rd Judicial District bar associations. He participates in the “Real Men Read” program through the Wilkes Community Partnership for Children, where he reads books to school-age children. Leach is the announcer for East Wilkes High School football (varsity, junior varsity and Saturday little league). He has the Professional Lecturer Certificate through the N.C. Department of Justice. “With the certificate, I teach legal updates and other topics to law enforcement officers in the district, and they can earn continuing education credits.” He represents the district attorney’s office on the Wilkes County Multi-Disciplinary Team, which is dedicated to combating and managing child abuse (physical and sexual) cases. Leach is an active member of the local Republican Party and is an Eagle Scout.