Local attorney Albert David Kirby Jr., who has served Clinton and Sampson County over the years, has been appointed by the governor to fill the Superior Court judge vacancy left with the sudden passing of Doug Parsons.
Gov. Roy Cooper recently made the announcement of three new judicial appointments in districts across North Carolina, including Kirby’s as a Superior Court judge in Judicial District 4A, serving Sampson, Jones and Duplin counties. Kirby is assuming the post previously occupied by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge William Douglas “Doug” Parsons, who passed away in September after five years in the position.
“He was a lovable person, just a guy who did so much for me,” said Kirby of Parsons, “and he was a tremendous trial lawyer. I was totally devastated by the death of Doug. Even now, it’s very hard.”
A Sampson native and Clinton High School graduate, Kirby has been a public servant and attorney for more than 25 years. He served as the board attorney for Clinton City Schools for two decades and has represented District 5 on the Sampson County Board of Commissioners for the past seven years.
Kirby, who holds degrees from Wake Forest University and Campbell University School of Law, operates a private law practice in downtown Clinton and has also served as president of the Sampson County Bar Association. He actually clerked for Parsons and Dale Johnson in the mid-1980s as he was finishing at Wake Forest and then afterward. As a sixth grader, Kirby met Johnson when Johnson was an assistant district attorney. Johnson later got him into the firm, where he assisted Johnson as well as on Parsons’ criminal cases.
“Many people knew Doug as a criminal expert,” said Kirby, “but I remember he used to do a lot of things. He handled a worker’s comp case for my mother.”
After graduating from law school in 1986, Kirby served as an assistant district attorney in Fayetteville and then moved on to an ADA position in Pitt County, at which point he was also an adjunct professor at East Carolina University. He taught a criminal justice class at night and enjoyed it so much he went full-time as an assistant professor, teaching for three years.
He ran for Superior Court judge in Pitt County in 1990.
“I hadn’t been a lawyer for long (when I ran),” said Kirby. “I had three years as an ADA.”
That second place finish in the judge race, though ultimately unsuccessful, was a good learning experience for the young attorney.
“When it comes to running, they really do look at the person. They don’t just look at race and party affiliation; at least then they didn’t,” Kirby remarked. “They just want to hear what you have to say. You get to meet people. That process was so good for me.”
In the early 1990s, Kirby came back to his hometown of Clinton.
He grew up on a tobacco farm where Clinton High School now sits, one of Albert D. Kirby Sr. and Lu Ellen’s five children — there were three older sisters and a younger brother. Kirby learned at a young age that if you wanted something, you worked for it. His father was a World War II vet who battled alcohol issues, which he was able to curb for the last 15 years of his life. Lu Ellen was a steadfast mother who brought her children up to listen, work hard and make something of themselves.
Upon returning to Clinton, Kirby established his own law practice, his older sister Alberta serving as his paralegal. Through the years, he has focused on civil litigation, including personal injury, worker’s compensation and medical malpractice cases, with a criminal case here and there.
Almost immediately after coming home, he was selected as Clinton City Schools’ board attorney, a position in which he served for two decades. He won the Democratic nomination as District 5 commissioner soon thereafter and cruised unopposed in the 2010 primary. He was reelected four years later and his current term will expire in November 2018.
While he believes he could technically serve out his term, and continue serving in the county post if elected, the demands of the judgeship would spread him thin and may give the appearance of impropriety, he noted. He wants to avoid that.
“I would not want to do that,” Kirby said of continuing as both a judge and commissioner. “I think judging should free of any appearance you could favor one or another, such as the county if they were in a dispute. I can’t see how I would fulfill the term.”
There are many moving parts at this point. While the appointment has been made, the logistics of actually taking the judge’s seat are still in the works. Kirby will have to close down his practice and relinquish his commissioner’s seat, which he said could happen “very, very soon.”
Sampson’s Clerk of Superior Court Norman Wayne Naylor’s seat will have to be filled, which will be one of Kirby’s first orders of business.
Currently in his fourth term, Naylor announced in August that he intended to step down at the end of 2017, endorsing the appointment of fellow Republican Dwight Williams Jr. to fill out his unexpired term. Naylor’s current term will end in November 2018. Clerk since 2002, Naylor told his staff in August that he would be retiring on Dec. 31, 2017 and wanted Williams to serve out the remaining 11 months of his term.
“Norman Wayne Naylor’s seat has to be filled and I’m the one who will be (making that appointment),” Kirby pointed out. “I want it to go smoothly and I pray to God it does.”
Faith is important to Kirby, who amid his other responsibilities in court and as a commissioner, is currently studying for his Masters of Divinity at Campbell University. Those studies will likely also be suspended until Kirby gets his legs under him with the new judgeship.
“I’ve been called to the ministry,” said Kirby. “I don’t express that openly a lot. My grandfather used to tell me ‘If I have to tell you that I am a follower of Christ, I have failed as a Christian.’ Your light has to shine. Some people might be concerned about separation of church and state, and they are right. I will do as the law dictates. I won’t use the judgeship to indoctrinate Christianity on anybody.”
At the same time, Kirby can’t help but see “the hand of God” touching so many things in his own life.
In the weeks that followed Parsons’ death, Kirby said he received a handful of calls asking him to consider pursuing the judge vacancy. That handful grew, and Kirby began to think it could be a possibility.
“The number of people who called me go to be quite substantial,” he attested. “They thought the judgeship should stay in Sampson County. I put my name in and pursued it.”
Parsons was officially appointed by Gov. Beverly Perdue in March 2012 to replace retiring Superior Court Judge Russell Lanier Jr. Parsons’ was the first judgeship held by a Sampson County attorney in 41 years, since Judge Howard Hubbard left the bench in 1971.
Just as Parsons was selected, Kirby was chosen from a narrowed group of three candidates.
The new judge said he may reach out to Judge William (Billy) Sutton, also of Sampson, who was elected last year for Judicial District 4 after being appointed to the bench in 2015. Prior to serving on the bench, Sutton was in private practice in Sampson from 1990-2015, mirroring Kirby’s time in the same capacity, so his guidance could be helpful, Kirby said.
“I will have to wind down my practice and wind down my time as commissioner,” Kirby conceded.
But he won’t be replacing Parsons. That isn’t the right word. He will be succeeding him on the bench.
“There’s no way to fill Doug’s shoes,” said Kirby. “The man was just so smart. And not only did he know the law, he knew people.”
In fact, one thing Parsons told Sutton, Kirby and others as he sat on the bench was that a judge’s ego had little place in the courtroom.
“It’s the people’s courtroom, not the judge’s,” said Kirby, relaying Parsons’ words. “Take away the conceit you have. That’s the way he lived — I will always remember that and strive to follow that.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.