Unfurling the ‘scarlet thread of fairness’ with Judge Jesse Caldwell III
In this episode of Trying 2 Win, Sara Lincoln and Tricia Derr talk with recently retired Superior Court Judge Jesse Caldwell III, who has nearly 50 years of courtroom experience that culminated in a 28-year stint as a Superior Court judge in Gaston County, making him the longest-serving Superior Court Judge in the division.
Dubbed “the renaissance man” by Tricia, Judge Caldwell has many interests that he feels have helped him both on the bench and as a lawyer. He’s an actor, writer, foodie, and preacher who said his biggest interest is the people in his community.
Judge Caldwell discusses the importance of getting to know people, the virtue of fairness in the judicial system and the passing of the torch after his son Judge Jesse Caldwell IV succeeded him in the courtroom.
Taking the Bench
Judge Caldwell III has spent a lifetime in the law. He worked as a lawyer for 20 years before donning the black robe, both in private practice and as a public defender, representing civil and criminal cases. Fighting for justice is a passion for him.
“I grew up wanting to be in the courtroom, fighting and litigating and championing a cause,” he says.
He took up the gavel in 1983. Being a judge meant that he no longer got to fight for a client, but it allowed him to have a bigger impact while acting as an impartial party. Rather than persuasion, it required balancing and listening and weighing both sides.
The Renaissance Man
While Judge Caldwell’s passion has always been justice, he is a man of many tastes, which has given him an insight into human nature, as well as a special talent for his work in the courthouse.
He feels his theatre experience (coupled with a flamboyant personality) helped his movement and cadence as a lawyer, while his interest in community activities and work as a preacher brought him closer to people.
“It helped me to know something about the subjects that we were litigating,” he says.
It also helped him to understand the feelings of the jury. In an example, Judge Caldwell tells Sara and Tricia that he would often profusely thank and praise (often sullen) jurors, telling them that he understood they were experiencing an inconvenience, but they played an extremely important role that embodies the entire foundation of our democracy.
The ‘Scarlet Thread of Fairness’
Judges are the zenith of power in the courtroom, and for those awaiting a verdict, the rap of a gavel can be a life-changing sound signaling the end of an ordeal or the end of their freedom.
“I’ve always tried to remember that the best use of power is the forbearance of it,” Judge Caldwell says.
Tricia remembers an article written by Judge Caldwell, Remember Who You Are, from Lawyer to Lawyer : North Carolina Reflections on the Practice of Law, which championed fighting unfairness, inequity and injustice.
The article quotes Gaston County attorney Frank “Pat” Cooke, who said during jury arguments “there is a scarlet thread that runs throughout the fabric of our judicial system, throughout the fabric of society. This is the scarlet thread of fairness. If you pull that thread out, then the whole fabric of our system, and even society, becomes unraveled.”
Caldwell was so inspired by him that he handed out a couple hundred spools of red thread at an ethics seminar. He urged the room of lawyers and judges to keep the spool of scarlet thread on their desk or on their person to remind them of who they are and why they do their job: to find justice.
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Our Cover Art Background: “Brave Enough”
Artist: Sally Higgins
After many years of artistic pursuits of various kinds, Charlotte artist Sally Higgins turned to painting about 10 years ago. She works in oil, acrylic, encaustic and mixed media. Art provides Sally a welcome respite from her word-filled career as a trial lawyer. See more of Sally’s art at sallyhigginsfineart.com and studioworksgallery.com.