Chief District Court Judge Charlie Brown won’t seek re-election

Published 4:24 pm Monday, November 22, 2021

SALISBURY — After nearly two dozen years on the bench, Rowan County Chief District Court Judge Charlie Brown said Monday he won’t seek re-election in 2022.

First elected judge in 1998, Brown is completing his sixth term. In 2001, at age 35, he became the youngest chief district court judge in North Carolina and is now the longest serving chief judge in the state among those currently in office.

“My wife and I raised our family during my six terms as a district court judge, and we are now empty nesters, marking a milestone,” said the 55-year-old Brown in a news release. “I will reach full retirement as my term comes to an end next year, and I will join several other local elected courthouse executives in retiring. A changing of the guard of sorts.”

Brown thanked former Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Anna Mills Wagoner for inspiring his career on the bench. He succeeded Wagoner as chief district court judge after she was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina.

“It is difficult to imagine our courthouse without Judge Charlie Brown. He has been an integral and invaluable member of our legal and courthouse community for more than a quarter-century as DSS attorney, assistant district attorney, district court judge and chief district court judge. He has done it all with legal acuity and professionalism,” Wagoner said. “Our county and state have benefited from his leadership and abilities as he has worked tirelessly for improvements and innovations in all aspects of our court system.”

Brown thanked another mentor, former Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly, for demonstrating a sincere and strong commitment to the pursuit of justice for all, which Brown said set the standard for his own work.

“During Judge Brown’s time as an assistant district attorney, I saw his deep commitment to justice firsthand. As a judge, his work ethic and leadership within the courthouse community will be sorely missed,” said Kenerly, who hired Brown in 1996. “His service to the people of Rowan County and North Carolina has been outstanding.”

Reflecting on his career, Brown said improving the juvenile justice system and other initiatives to benefit children and teens have brought him the most job satisfaction while also presenting the biggest challenges.

Brown began focusing on helping youth soon after his first election, establishing the Rowan County Juvenile Drug Treatment Court in 2001 and presiding over it for five years. The court focused on intensive supervision and treatment for juveniles charged with drug-related offenses. He also joined the Rowan County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council in 2001, serving until 2020.

In 2002, Brown founded the courthouse daycare center, which provides a safe place for children while their parents or guardians are in court.

Brown worked for years at local and state levels to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina, the last state in the country to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. For seven years, he served on the N.C. Youth Accountability Task Force and the N.C. Juvenile Justice Planning Committee, which both studied juvenile jurisdiction and recommended that state lawmakers raise the age. The effort was ultimately successful.

Brown received the Kathleen Russo Friend of the Child Award in 2009 from Prevent Child Abuse Rowan, an agency that operates the Child Advocacy Center in Salisbury and promotes education and awareness to help end child abuse. Agency leaders said they chose Brown because he was known for thinking outside the box to find solutions that resulted in better outcomes for children.

In 2010, after requesting and securing an expansion of the Rowan County Courthouse, Brown worked to develop a courtroom specially designed to meet the unique needs of juvenile court.

He also hosted the courthouse portion of the third-grade walking tours, when students visited downtown landmarks to learn about government and good citizenship. Brown said he tried to make himself available on tour days to host the third graders, including coaching them through a mock trial. Brown estimates that he has spoken to more than 10,000 students over the years. He led mock trials for students of all ages ranging from Boy Scout troops and summer camps to Basic Law Enforcement Training.

“Hosting students at the courthouse, as well as going to schools across Rowan County to speak at graduations, lead mock trials and preside over authentic DWI trials in school gyms during prom season were not part of my job description,” Brown said. “But these interactions with youth in our community were some of the most rewarding of my career.”

Brown continues to lead the N.C. Sentencing Policy and Advisory Commission, where he has been a member since 2008 and chairman since 2017. The commission monitors North Carolina’s criminal justice system through a number of mandates — projecting the prison population, studying adult and juvenile recidivism and reviewing proposed criminal legislation, among others — and makes recommendations to the N.C. General Assembly for the addition, deletion, or expansion of sentencing options to achieve policy goals.

Appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper to the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission in 2019, Brown continues to serve and focuses on identifying and distributing funding to organizations that provide victim services across the state. Brown also was recently named to a statewide task force to develop and standardize remote court proceedings.

“We have navigated some difficult and sticky issues together, not the least of which was COVID-19 and the threat posed to public health,” Wagoner said. “Judge Brown was a valued colleague and sounding board when we served together as district court judges in the 1990s and remained so for 11 years while I served as senior resident superior court judge and he was chief district court judge.

“He will be sorely missed, but after 20-plus years in the district court trenches, he has certainly earned his retirement.”

Brown began his legal career in 1992 with a private law firm in Winston-Salem. In 1994, he became the attorney for the Rowan County Department of Social Services, where he served until joining the Rowan County District Attorney’s Office and then winning election as a district court judge. In all, he has more than 29 years of experience in the N.C. court system. He is past president of the N.C. Conference of Chief District Court Judges.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University, Brown studied law at the University of South Dakota and Wake Forest University. He lives in Salisbury with his wife, Emily Ford. They have three children, Henry Brown, Eleanor Brown and Clara Brown.