Veteran judge

Judge David V. Byrd has presided over District Court sessions in the 23rd Judicial District since 1994. He has been Chief District Court judge since 2014.

Judge David V. Byrd of North Wilkesboro said he was fulfilling “naive plans of a young man” when he was first elected a District Court judge in 1994.

Byrd was 33 then, ranking him among the state’s youngest judges. Twenty-seven years later, he is one of the state’s longest serving District Court judges and Chief District Court judge for the 23rd Judicial District (Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties).

Local attorneys say Byrd is known for thoroughness and for maintaining a level playing field for all parties in court.

While he plans to preside over courts across the state part-time as an “emergency” District Court judge, Byrd soon will end a frequent presence at the Wilkes County Courthouse spanning three decades. He announced recently that he won’t seek his eighth four-year term in this year’s election.

Byrd looked back on his judicial career in a Jan. 7 interview, starting soon after he earned an undergraduate degree and graduated with honors from Appalachian State University in May 1983.

Byrd had a temporary Wilkes County tax revaluation job when Superior Court Judge Julius A. Rousseau Jr. appointed him a Wilkes magistrate in August 1983. At 22, Byrd was one of the state’s youngest magistrates.

This rekindled the interest he had in attending law school while he was an Elkin High School student. One evening at the old county courthouse in the third of his three years as a magistrate, Byrd mapped out a plan for the future in his head.

It began with applying for admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law. This was followed by returning to Wilkes to work as an assistant district attorney and then running for District Court judge in 1994, when he expected Judge Sam Osborne to not seek re-election.

Byrd said having been a magistrate likely helped him get into the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law and certainly served him academically. He didn’t apply anywhere else.

Byrd was in law school when he had ongoing communication with Michael Ashburn, district attorney then for the prosecutorial district with Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties, about possibly being hired as an assistant district attorney.

Near the end of Byrd’s three years of law school, Ashburn told him an assistant DA position was open “and it’s yours if you pass the bar.” Ashburn hired Byrd in 1989, the same year he graduated from law school and passed the bar. He said he always appreciated Ashburn for holding the position for him.

Assistant DAs Beirne Harding and Randy Lyon prosecuted Superior Court cases, while Byrd and Jeanie Reavis (now Houston) handled District Court. Houston was a District Court judge from 1997 until she didn’t seek re-election in 2020.

Byrd filed as a candidate for District Court judge when Osborne didn’t seek reelection in 1994. Byrd defeated Brad Cameron, a former assistant district attorney, and Houston in the Republican primary for the seat Osborne held. No Democrats ran so he was unopposed in the general election.

The state had partisan judicial elections then, but soon switched to non-partisan. They’re now partisan again with party primaries and political affiliation of candidates shown on ballots in general elections. Byrd said partisan judicial elections help voters know which candidates better represent their views.

Byrd joined Edgar Gregory and Michael Helms as a District Court judge for the 23rd Judicial District.

He said he was comfortable with presiding over criminal cases due to his work as a magistrate and assistant DA, but less so with civil cases because he had less experience with them. “I picked it up quickly,” partly with help of fellow judges and others.

He said the N.C. School of Government, which provides education and training for judges and other judicial officials, was a great resource then and now.

Much of this training is done in partnership with the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, including at annual judges’ conferences. Byrd said informal but informative conversations that occur when judges from Manteo to Murphy meet were lost when the conferences were held remotely in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Continuing education is extremely important” for judges, said Byrd. “Society is always changing and laws change to reflect this. Judges need to keep up with changes.”

For example, people are becoming more aware of their rights and increasingly are representing themselves instead of having an attorney. Byrd said this can create challenges for judges by raising new issues and situations or if people don’t know how to effectively present their cases while representing themselves.

He said one of the most positive changes in the judicial system occurred early in his career as a judge when structured sentencing was implemented.

This provided judges with specific sentencing standards and resulted in sentences within mandated ranges depending on the offense and a defendant’s prior record. It also meant defendants no longer serving only small portions of their prison sentences before being paroled.

In 2014, Chief Justice Mark Martin appointed Byrd as Chief District Court judge for the 23rd District. He succeeded Judge Michael Duncan of Wilkesboro after Duncan was elected a Superior Court judge. The chief District Court judge is administrator for criminal and civil District Court and supervises magistrates in the district. He or she sets schedules for District Court sessions and District Court judges in the district.

Byrd said most people in court are respectful, but a growing number are not. He said this reflects lack of self-respect and coarseness of society.

“When I was first elected, there was much more respect in a courtroom. People would stand up when the judge entered and more often said ‘your honor,’ ‘sir,’ and ma’am,’ ” he said. Now, people more often won’t stand when the bailiff says “all rise.” Byrd instructs bailiffs to repeat themselves and sometime do so more than once before people slowly rise.

Byrd has found people in contempt of court for absolutely refusing to follow rules of decorum.

“Most concerning is that the disrespect shows up at increasingly younger ages.” He believes this results from what is learned from some parents and negative influences of social media and popular culture role models.

Opioid and/or methamphetamine addiction are key factors in many of his court cases, from child abuse to larceny.

Byrd said probation with treatment and supervised probation is often a more appropriate sentence for defendants with substance addiction, but incarceration with treatment in prison may be a better option in other cases. There has to be accountability, he added.

Byrd often tells defendants, “It’s never going to get better until you (with strong emphasis on “you”) make a decision to change. When you decide that you’ve had enough of it, after it’s taken you away from your kids and ruined relationships and ruined your health, that’s when it will happen.”

“Sometimes it feels like you’re treading in molasses, not in water” because of the difficulty of seeing positive change. “I wonder, am I or any of us really doing any good?”

He added, “Then, I’ll be out somewhere and someone will come up to me and say something like, ‘Judge Byrd, you gave me two years in prison.’ I’m expecting to get hit when the person adds, “That was the best thing you could have done for me. After that, I straightened my life out.’ ”

He added, “People come up to me with a child and say, ‘do you remember the custody case you ruled on’ or ‘do you remember the child you made it possible for me to adopt?’ They’re happy to show me what a wonderful young lady or young man the child has become.”

Byrd said comments like these uplift him and remind him that judges can make a positive impact for good. “Always keep looking for what works.”

Byrd was ordained a Baptist minister well before he became a judge, but hasn’t felt led to pastor a church since serving in that role nine years ago. He said he never forced his faith on others, but believes being a judge puts him in a position of being a force for good in an environment with great need.

“There’s only so much you can do with law and the change has to start here,” motioning to his heart. He said his experience and knowledge as a minister helped him connect with some defendants in positive ways.

Byrd also noted the importance of prayer for him, including when seeking wisdom while faced with difficult decisions.

Byrd has three children: Laura Byrd Luffman, Sarah Byrd Sugg and Will Byrd. His two daughters are both attorneys and Laura Luffman filed as a candidate for the District Court judge’s seat Byrd now holds.

Byrd is the son of the late Rev. and Mrs. W. Von Byrd of Elkin.

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