Trial Briefs

Buckle up! Let’s Live In the Moment, But Plan For the Future

February 03, 2021   |   David Henson

The Board of Governors has approved an Advocacy Strategic Plan to guide NCAJ’s legislative, judicial, legal affairs and PAC activities. Here’s how it came together.

Finally, 2020 is in the rearview mirror. And now, we are all strapped in eagerly looking through the front window to see what is coming ahead. It has been one heck of a ride and many of us are eager to see the sights of yesteryear far in the distance behind us. It goes without saying that for most of us, I daresay all of us, 2020 was one of the most stressful and tumultuous periods in our collective lives. A national pandemic causing unprecedented death and illness, a national three-ring political circus, deep ideological divisions and unrivaled partisanship, widespread racial and social upheaval, and profound angst and worry not seen since the Great Depression.  

Let’s get the heck outta here as fast as we can.

But before we put the pedal to the metal, perhaps we need to reflect and assess for a moment. Our rearview mirror should not control where we are going, but there are some things we can learn from and draw from as we move forward.  

Politics dominated nearly every facet of life last year, and we were left at the end of 2020 with more confusion than when we started. As political strategist Morgan Jackson warned our members in late October: “North Carolina will be the purpliest of purple states and one of the most hotly contested states for the next four to eight years.”

 And wow, was he right.

Our state voted for Trump, supported Democrat incumbents Cooper, Stein and Marshall, and then straight–ticket elected Republicans in every single appellate judicial race. Voting was largely split in the legislative races, with seats picked up here and there by each party, but largely held constant in the final analysis. No blue wave, and no red tide. Just a sea of purple as far as the eye can see. 

In early 2019, NCAJ launched a comprehensive organizational strategic planning process with a formal plan that was approved by the Board of Governors in December 2019. You have no doubt seen the progress reports that we have provided in Trial Briefs and multiple State of the Association updates from Kim Crouch and I over the last year. We are making significant strides in that larger plan which will carry our organization forward for the next four years. 

The second phase of this planning process, development of the Advocacy Strategic Plan, was designed to take a deep dive into our legislative, judicial, legal affairs and PAC activities. The Board of Governors approved the plan that resulted from this process last week.

Launched in September 2020, the Advocacy Strategic Planning Task Force was chaired by President-elect John McCabe. Aided by our professional consultants from Daniels Advocacy Group, the task force had an opportunity to survey general membership, our Board of Governors, our Executive Committee, legislative members, past presidents, staff and lobbyists and others. One-on-one and group interviews occurred across a wide representative sample of members from a variety of backgrounds. No stone was left unturned in the analysis and critique of NCAJ political processes, philosophies, and history. And no processes or players were considered sacred throughout this evaluation.  

As a part of this process, the task force narrowed down the following goals: 

  • To create an advocacy mission statement for NCAJ, 
  • To develop a public policy development process to identify annual advocacy goals that align with our mission 
  • To develop a 2021 Public Policy Agenda, 
  • To develop strategic plans for NCAJ priority issues – short–, mid– and long-term goals, 
  • To review our PAC’s role, process, importance and endorsements, 
  • To Review our amicus brief process and overlap with the NCAJ legislative agenda,  
  • To develop a training program for members to be advocates at the General Assembly, 
  • To launch specific advocacy activities that build NCAJ’s presence at the General Assembly, and
  • To review  and overhaul  communications to members about advocacy activities.   

Over the last decade or two, leadership has heard all sorts of complaints and concerns from membership regarding advocacy. Some have complained that we lack a formal process and transparency in our political agenda. Others have argued that we have essentially been an invisible arm of the Democratic party and that we have shunned our Republican allies and members for far too long. Others have argued that we have not supported enough Democrats. Some argue for non-partisanship. Others have argued for bipartisanship. Many long for the good ole days when the Democrats were in power, even though some conveniently forget that that even under that control we still had contributory negligence, disproportionate incarcerations and conviction rates for differing races, caps in medical negligence cases, increased confinement times for many crimes, and the death penalty. Our membership and leadership have been all over the place with opinions and advice.  

All of this is complicated. Candidates are flawed. They have histories and mixed records on important NCAJ issues. Leadership is regularly faced with the quandary of whether to: 

  • Support a legislative committee chair who is our greatest champion on some issues but our nemesis on others; 
  • Support a candidate who we think has certain power, influence, or leverage that would further our mission, vision, beliefs or needs, even though they regularly take positions against us; 
  • Choose to be bi-partisan when it is the best strategic decision at the time; 
  • Support a legislative leader who is no friend, but is willing to meet with us and narrow the scope of bad legislation so it has a less noxious effect on our clients; 
  • Support a legislator who will not cross her caucus to help us on an issue, but will give us a heads up so we can be there when a proposed committee substitute drops; 
  • Support a judge we rate a B- with a high likelihood of winning, versus the A–rated judge we just don’t think will be able to cross the finish line in an election.  

Real world decisions by your real NCAJ leaders 

Over the last several years, however, a growing collective voice within our organization has pushed for a transition to a truly non-partisan model, whereby we support those elected officials who support our interests and work against those who do not. Not a shill for one political party or another, but a true  model that weighs all factors – beyond political affiliation, political appointment, race, gender identity, or anything else. Nor should our leadership should be unduly influenced by a contingency from within our organization that is pushing its own personal political motivations or desires. Leadership should remove its personal political opinions and instead makes decisions based on a clear NCAJ advocacy mission. 

It is my belief that with an explicit advocacy mission statement, paired along with a clear, developed process, selection criteria and transparency, our membership will develop a greater trust for advocacy decisions made by leadership. We cannot continue any longer being erratic in our political decisions and direction. We cannot continue to yearn for how things were done in the past. And we cannot always be waiting on the next election for things to change. We must live in the moment, and work for the future. We must broaden and deepen our relationships with legislators, judges and Council of Sstate members on both sides of the political aisle in order to ensure our long-term success.  

Now that the BOG has approved the Advocacy Strategic Plan, it will be rolled out to the entire membership, just as we did with the broader NCAJ strategic plan. It will then serve as the roadmap for where we wish to go in the journeys ahead of us.   

So, I invite each of you to buckle up your NCAJ seatbelts. Put on your sunglasses. Roll down the windows and put on your favorite music. Let’s spin the tires, kick up some dust and race into 2021. The trip will be long, and though there will be some bumps along the way, but I am convinced we are heading toward a better place.