03/09/08 — Setzer will retire at end of the year

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Setzer will retire at end of the year

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on March 9, 2008 4:02 PM

Chief District Court Judge Joe Setzer's “love of the practice of law” is not enough to keep him from retiring to pursue other interests, like sailing through the British Virgin Islands and helping build sets for local theatre group StageStruck.

Setzer announced he would not seek another term as chief before the election filing deadline Feb. 29.

He will finish out his current term, which ends on Dec. 31, as a “commitment to the people who voted for him,” he said.

The judge has been a sailor for years, even teaching a sailing course at one point. It will be one of the hobbies he will focus on in retirement.

“I still have my health, and I think it’s just reached a point where I want do do other things — while I’m still healthy enough to do other things,” Setzer said.

Setzer was first appointed a judge by former Gov. Jim Hunt in 1980 to replace a judge who had passed away.

He was first appointed as chief district court judge in 2001, according to the N.C. Administrative Offices of the Courts.

Setzer has noticed a few changes in the courts since 1980 — and also has been involved in some innovative changes here in Wayne County’s legal system.

As laws have become more complicated with the passage of legislation, the role of the district court judge has changed, Setzer said.

“In the 1980s, most of the judges — I think at that time there were five of us — we pretty much rotated around,” Setzer said. “So we would do domestic for a week, then we might do criminal for a week. Then whatever else came around.”

Now, “the judges are becoming more specialized,” Setzer said. “We're a family court district, where one judge pretty much stays with a case the whole time.”

Setzer prefers having one judge for a case over a rotating pool, because families could be forced to appear before as many as four different judges, he said.

“The third judge didn’t know what the first one did or the second one did, and had to be brought up to speed on the case,” Setzer said.

There have been other improvements in the criminal justice system, the chief district court judge said. One is teen court, where teens charged with qualifying offenses can be tried by their peers with the help of adult volunteers.

“We're one of the few districts or counties to have a teen court,” Setzer said. “If they're under 16, or if they have an adult charge but are under 18 ... the punishment would be decided by their peers, so it would be high school kids deciding the punishment, within the guidelines set by the judge.”

One requirement to be tried by teen court: The accused offender must admit that he or she committed the offense, Setzer said.

Once the teens decided on a proper punishment, “then we would take that child back to court, either juvenile or adult court and dismiss the charges.”

That way accused teens can avoid record of a conviction, although a record of the charge still exists. The system can help young folks who make a mistake get their lives back on track, Setzer said.

“We've had cases where ... the child wanted to get into medical school, and had a conviction for some little shoplifting case when they were 16,” Setzer said. “And it really messed them up trying to get into med school.”

Another place where Setzer plays a major role is in Family Drug Treatment Court, started just a few years ago, Setzer said.

“That's unlike any court you'll ever see,” Setzer said. “It's a positive reinforcement court. You enter the program, it will take you a minimum of 270 days. If you relapse (back to drug use), we don’t kick you out of the program, we just start at the beginning of Day 1.”

Setzer said the local court system decided that people who had lost custody rights to their children because of drug use were the appropriate targets for the program.

Parents get rewards like fast food coupons, and other types of coupons are doled out for staying clean.

Setzer said the program allows for closer monitoring of participants.

“It’s on a faster track — we can monitor a lot closer than the Department of Social Services by themselves. We can do drug testing 20-30 times a week. If they finish the course, we have a graduation for them. We have soft drinks and bottled water. We applaud.”

Setzer said he makes sure the participants in that course know that he's “not made at them.”

However, he admits that he takes personal pride in the progress of some participants.

“I probably get somewhat depressed when some of them that I think are doing really well have a relapse,” he said.

Graduations from the drug treatment court are a great joy for him, the chief district court judge said.

“It all pays off when I see them come back to court, because you know, hopefully we were able to turn their lives around,” Setzer said. “That's somebody who's a productive citizen again. These people are gainfully employed. They’re taxpayers again. And their children are not in foster care, which saves the county a lot of money.”