Clerk of Superior Court – Jennifer Knox

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Very few people actually know what the Clerk of Court does. What information should voters know about this office in order to cast an informed vote?
The Clerk of Court’s office is responsible for all of the legal filings in Wake County. All 100 counties in North Carolina have a Clerk of Court. And, of course, Wake County is the second biggest county in the state. So, it’s really the way that people access justice either through criminal filing or civil filing or some other special proceedings. So it’s a really important position and a really important office that needs to be very well run. It’s a large office with about 160 employees, so the person who is the Clerk needs to have good management skills, needs to be able to handle such a large office, and also needs to know how things work. The Clerk also has original jurisdiction over some special types of cases, specifically adoption proceedings, guardianship proceedings for incompetent persons, and the probate of wills. So, the Clerk itself actually, she or he has judicial functions that they have to carry out in addition to the record functions and simply keeping the office as a whole running.

Tell us about your experiences and why that would help you as Clerk of Court.
I’ve been a lawyer for 14 years. Although it’s not a requirement, I absolutely believe that the Clerk should be a lawyer because of all the legal issues and legal questions that come up and because of the judicial functions of the Clerk. In addition, I’ve been a District Court Judge for the last 10 years. I was elected in 2004 and then was re-elected in 2008 and 2012. And so, as a judge, I sit in court every day hearing cases, so I know how to make a decision based on the facts and the law of the case. I’ve had 10 years of experience doing that. But, I also, having worked in this same courthouse for 14 years, I know a lot of the people who work here, I know how things specifically work, I know how one file gets from the Clerk’s office up into the courtroom, I know a lot of the procedures.

So, that experience would really help me, will really help me if elected, because I’m not a beginner. I’ll already know how things works so I’ll know what things need to be changed to make things more efficient and what things actually work well as they are right now. But I think the judicial experience I’ve had for the last decade is foremost, puts me head and shoulders above the other candidates.

The current Clerk of Court is not seeking re-election. What changes or improvements would you work for if you are elected as the next Clerk?
There’s going to be a lot of changes within the Wake County court system in general. We’re going to have a new District Attorney and obviously a new Clerk one way or the other. First, I would look at all the procedures we have and make sure that they make sense and that they are the most efficient. Too often in government we end up doing things or continuing to do things the way we’ve always done them simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them. With the high volume of cases, we never get a chance to step back and look at if we’re doing something the right way.

So there’s certainly some processes that I think could be tweaked or changed and more specifically, we need to start using technology, which we do, I would say, very little right now. Our computer system is from the 80s, it’s DOS-based, and we really need to get, I like to joke, get into the 20th century on technology. But we need to have an e-filing system which would be, which is where, lawyers and litigants can file things electronically as opposed to having to come down to the courthouse and give a piece of paper to the Clerk, have that Clerk file that piece of paper. And the other benefit to e-fling are that those files can be accessible online so that people can look at a lawsuit that’s been filed for example or a criminal indictment as another example.

Part of the technology aspect will be working with the Administrative Office of the Courts and the legislature to get more funding for these things. But there’s no excuse for the fact that we are so woefully behind with our technology and, while government will never have the resources that the private sector has, we don’t have to be so far behind.

The Clerk’s office is responsible for managing some tasks that can be highly emotionally charged for some citizens, such as the foreclosure of property, or the division of an estate after a relative’s death. What can you do to help citizens in such a crisis with facing the paper work and filings required by the Clerk’s office?
I think that question goes back to our most important resource, which is our staff. I said there’s about 160 employees and the culture of any office comes from the top. You need to have a professional elected Clerk of Court, somebody who can inspire confidence in their employees that they will be well taken care of, that will also have standards for professionalism and competence. I hope that if I’m elected that I can be that person and that I can keep the employees happy but also foster a culture of professionalism because just like that question shows, most people who come to the courthouse are not there because they want to be there. Either a loved one’s died, or in the criminal sectors, our clerks are dealing with defendant who have been charged with a crime every day, who have been arrested. Those people are not happy. So, you’ve got to deal with a difficult population.

I would hope to, of course, hire people who are competent but also make sure that they have the training they need so that they can help walk somebody through the process and that they also know the boundaries between giving legal advice, which of course they are not allowed to do, but also helping somebody, direct them with where they need to go. And also to make things, to make sure that our offices for the various functions are in a place that is accessible for people so that we have proper signage around the court house and the justice center so that people can know where they’re going and not get lost.

There are some simple things like that but I think the biggest thing is the human resources aspect of having employees who want to come to work each day, who know that they are working in the government and should be doing that to serve the people, because they are certainly not doing to get rich. The salaries are state government or county government salaries. So they are not, our clerks are not going to get rich working at the Clerk’s office so they need to be doing it for service and to help others, which is why I’m running.

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