Mecklenburg Chief District Judge Lisa Bell has been named “Woman of the Year” in the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly’s inaugural Women of Justice Awards.
Bell was among 25 women from across the state who received awards in categories ranging from public service and legal scholar to rising star and business and litigation practitioner.
Bell also was among five judges who won Public Official awards. Three other Mecklenburg District judges – Ty Hands, Rickye McKoy-Mitchell and Elizabeth Trosch – also won Public Official awards.
“I am honored to have been one of the four Mecklenburg County Judges recognized as a Woman of Justice,” Bell told the Observer. “Although the award recognized the commitment we have to our profession and our community, my colleagues and I aren’t driven by a desire for recognition. We are driven by a desire to do justice and help improve the lives of families and children. We simply try to do that every day.”
Five other Charlotte lawyers also won Women of Justice Awards. Nancy Norelli, a former Mecklenburg District judge, and Joycelyn “Jo” Eason with the Bradley Arant Boult Cummings law firm won Litigation Practitioner awards. Dianne Chipps Bailey with Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson won a Public Service Practitioner award. Tania Archer with Moore & Van Allen and Rebecca Lindahl with Katten Muchin Rosenman won Rising Star awards.
Liz Irwin, the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly’s publisher, described the award winners as “exceptional women.”
“They each exemplify the qualities of a good lawyer, regardless of their gender,” Irwin wrote. “But it is their gender that also makes them trailblazers in this profession, even at the dawn of a new millennium.”
Irwin cited a recent national study that found women compose less than 32 percent of the nation’s lawyers and hold 23 percent of federal judgeships and 27 percent of state judgeships. Less than 20 percent of law firm partners are women.
“When we sought nominations for this recognition, we looked to honor those who have moved the needle in the North Carolina judicial community,” Irwin wrote in a letter to readers. “We looked for women who hold positions of strength, who lead firms boldly, who wear their battle scars proudly, who serve the underprivileged, who aspire to a new future, or who teach those who will become the next generation of lawyers.
“And we found them.”
Irwin wrote that a number of common themes emerged from the work of the award winners – a commitment to pro bono work, volunteer service with nonprofits and community organizations, a belief in the need to help minority members of society, and what she called “an appreciation of the magnificence of the justice system – and an awareness that sometimes the innocent are wrongly punished.”
In announcing the Women of Justice Awards, the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly provided short profiles on the winners.
The headlines on Bell’s profile read: “LISTENER IN CHIEF” and “Mecklenburg Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell makes more use of her ear than her gavel.”
“It’s a safe bet that Lisa Bell is the only chief District Court judge in the state who dropped out of high school,” the profile begins.
Turns out Bell didn’t need a high school diploma. Her SAT scores and grades were good enough to get her accepted to Wake Forest University.
Bell knew she wanted to a judge when she was 10 – ever since she studied the judicial system as part of a gifted program at her elementary school in Pilot Mountain.
In 1998, at the age of 31, Bell won a seat on the Mecklenburg District Court bench. Ten years later, N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker appointed Bell Mecklenburg’s chief judge.
The profile notes that Bell has been an outspoken advocate for openness.
In 2002, she presided over juvenile court hearings in the prosecution of a teen accused in the strangling death of 8-year-old Justin Marlow. Bell had to decide if the courtroom should be closed or open to the public. She ruled that the doors to her courtroom would remain open.
“I think that when you’re not transparent, when you’re too close to the vest with what you do it causes distrust,” Bell was quoted in the profile as saying.
“There’s enough distrust of our system as it is. What I feel passionate about is the public having trust in our system and what we do.”
3 others honored
Here are excerpts from the profiles on the three other Mecklenburg judges who were among the Women of Justice Awards winners.
• Hands’ mother died when she was 2. She was raised by her grandmother and did not meet her father until she was 19. By the time she was 21, she’d lost both her high school sweetheart and her husband to murder.
“I learned early in life that when life throws you curve balls, you just have to knock it out of the park anyway,” Hands said.
Hands has been active in Big Brothers Big Sisters. “I know firsthand the value of having a mentor. … I would not be where I am were it not for people who had taken the time to help me, advise me and guide me. It is equally critical that we help, advise and guide those who come after us.”
• McKoy-Mitchell works to help others see their potential. “I remind myself of how fortunate I am to be a District Court judge and to be in a position to make a positive impact in someone’s life,” she said.
What keeps her going, the judge says, is when she sees youngsters in Juvenile Court achieve success and realize potential they never thought was possible. Or when she sees a victim of domestic violence gain a greater sense of safety because a protective order was entered.
“These cases inspire me to be better and to try even harder the next day to be a fair and impartial judge,” McKoy-Mitchell said.
• Trosch has won the N.C. State Bar Pro Bono Service Award while in law school. She became a lawyer so she could have positive influences on the lives of the disenfranchised.
“Working for the least powerful people in our community kept me grounded in both my personal and professional life,” Trosch said. “Providing the best representation you can for nothing or next to nothing to someone who would otherwise not be heard is probably the most important thing an attorney can do to preserve the integrity and maintain the quality of our justice system.”