For more than 20 years, a native of McDowell County has heard cases in the state’s second highest court, which is celebrating its 50th year in 2017.
Chief Judge Linda McGee, 67, formerly of Marion, serves on the N.C. Court of Appeals. She has been on the court for 22 years, and is only the second woman to have served as chief. Before that, she practiced law in Boone for 17 years after earning her degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But no matter how far she has come, she is still a proud product of her small-town upbringing in McDowell County, where much of her passion for the law began. She grew up in the mill villages of East Marion. Her mother retired after 50 years at the American Thread Company.
“I grew up in East Marion on Rutherford Road and graduated from Marion High School in 1967,” McGee told The McDowell News in a recent phone interview. “My mother, Jean Mace, still lives in Marion and I come back every three weeks to visit her.”
Growing up in Marion and during summers at college, McGee worked for The McDowell News first as a type setter, then a reporter and editor.
“I enjoyed newspaper work. It was a great way to get to know people and find out more information,” she said.
She also gives credit to her mentor, the late E.P. Dameron, an attorney from McDowell County.
“I’ve had great opportunities. He helped me get a scholarship to go to school, and he was one of the people who interviewed me. I admired his service and involvement, and they way he treated people,” said McGee. “I appreciated that kind of mentorship. You wanted to do well because you knew lawyers were respected, not only with clients, but with the community. That has always been important.”
Another importance in her life is growing a strong community of professional women. She is one of the co-founders of the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys. She has received numerous accolades and awards, and served on boards supporting women across the state.
“One of the things that we talked a good deal about was that we needed more women on the bench. A good friend of mine in the state senate told me about a vacancy on the Court of Appeals and she asked me about it,” said McGee. “It was difficult to say no. She went to Gov. Jim Hunt at the time and encouraged him to consider my appointment. I felt it was an opportunity I wanted to take.”
McGee’s husband and two sons were supportive, and in 1995 she was appointed by Hunt, then elected to an eight-year term in 1996, and re-elected in 2004. In 2014, she was named chief judge.
“When I first came to the court, there were only 12 judges. Today, there are 15. I was the only woman on the court. Then about eight years ago or so, we had a majority of women on the court which is a pretty dramatic change,” she said. “It switches back and forth any given election cycle.”
How have cases changed during her time on the bench?
“For a long time, 60 percent of our work has been dealing with appeals in criminal cases,” she said. “That has not changed a whole lot, but we have a lot more cases that involve abuses and neglected children. Those are difficult things to deal with. There is a strong emphasis to resolve them quickly so the lives of the children can be as normal as possible.”
As an appeals judge, she said, it is easier to keep emotions out of a case because, for one, the judges don’t see the victims or the defendants, and secondly, both sides are usually well represented and well researched.
“There is never a dull day in our court. There is always something new and challenging for us to deal with so you don’t get set in your ways,” she said. “Sometimes you have really clear choices, and other times you have areas of law that have not been well developed yet. You certainly have your personal feelings about some circumstances, but our role is to decide if the person received a fair trial, and if the actions taken were appropriate. You focus on issues, more than circumstances.”
As far as what kind of judge McGee thinks she is, she said she is open minded, fair, thoroughly researched and hopefully a clear writer. She said her journalism background helps with that.
“ I like to think when a lawyer back in my hometown pulls out of one of my opinions that they can read it and share it quickly, and know just where things stand,” said McGee.
The hardest part about the job, she said, could be focusing on what’s most important in their role as judges.
“A number of us have other important roles, but we always have to be aware that the cases brought before us need to be promptly and fairly decided and in a fair and efficient manner,” said McGee.
What does she see as the challenges the state and its people face today?
“We are a growing state with more challenges and potential changes because of different types of industries,” she said. “My parents worked in the mills in Marion, and that was as way of life we all understood. I benefited from growing up in East Marion, and we all had similar backgrounds. Now we all have different backgrounds and we have to educate ourselves more. That’s something all us need to do, particularly judges.”
McGee commutes to Raleigh and other places where courts are held from her home at the Outer Banks, where she lives with her husband and their dogs. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and their 21-month-old grandson.