Chief District Judge Joe Buckner retired on July 31 after more than 25 years on the bench in District 15B, which encompasses all of Chatham County and some of Orange County.
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SILER CITY — Chief District Judge Joe Buckner retired on July 31 after more than 25 years on the bench in District 15B, which encompasses all of Chatham County and some of Orange County.
Buckner was born and raised in Siler City, graduating from Jordan-Matthews High School before earning his undergraduate and law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. As a child, his grandfather, former Siler City Police Chief June Moody, would take him to court in Siler City, telling him to “keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.”
“I had no idea I’d be a lawyer, much less a judge,” Buckner said, adding his grandfather was “a very important part of my life growing up.”
While in law school, he got a job at Joe Hackney’s law firm as a “grunt,” he said, taking out trash and delivering papers to other law offices and banks. After receiving his law degree, Buckner was torn between staying at Hackney’s firm and working with his “Uncle Jack” at what was the Williams and Roper Law Firm at the time. He decided to stay with Hackney, working general practice law for several years.
When long-standing judge Trish Love announced she was not seeking re-election in 1994, Buckner said several older judges approached him about running for the seat.
“I never had any ambition to be a judge,” Buckner said. “I talked to my mom (Helen Buckner) and she said, ‘If that’s what you want, me and all my friends are going to go out and get you the votes.’”
He won with 80% of the vote in a three-person race in 1994 and has run unopposed ever since.
“I feel very fortunate,” Buckner said. “When I first started, I was young. People would ask, ‘How long you staying?’ I said, ‘I promise it won’t be as long as Judge [Stanley] Peele.’”
Peele holds the record as the longest serving district court judge at 26 years. Buckner came close — just three months shy of the record — but he was happy to leave the honor with Peele, who died in 2018 at age 84.
Two years after his first election, Buckner was appointed chief judge, a role he held throughout his tenure. He served under six chief justices, both Republican and Democrat, all of whom reaffirmed his appointment each year.
As chief judge, Buckner was responsible for assigning courtrooms and cases, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the District 15B court — although he admits that he would sometimes create the schedule based on what he wanted to eat and whether fried catfish was the special at Virlie’s, the restaurant in Pittsboro.
During his tenure, Buckner spearheaded and oversaw several changes in the system in the district. He called former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell a mentor and “really good man” who offered good advice, such as “If you make everything a priority, then nothing is a priority.”
Some of Buckner’s greatest innovations were in the creation of specialized courts. He started the first mental health court in North Carolina. Cases in this court didn’t involve what Buckner called typical criminals. They may have some community nuisance issues or residential situations, he said, but in reality, they were likely not getting the mental health treatment they needed.
“It was a wonderful collaborative effort that started 20 years ago,” Buckner said.
Also in his tenure, the district opened the first drug court in the district. This court often deals with situations similar to family court, but with the added complication of drug abuse. Sometimes a family member is addicted and the goal was to get them back to a position of sobriety and unite with the family, according to Buckner. He also instituted children planning conferences, which he said last year settled 85% of its cases before they went to court.
“We don’t have another program in district that is that successful,” Buckner said. “As little people, they are our biggest priority.
“What you learn as chief judge is it doesn’t matter what your vision is,” he said. “You have to have the cooperation of dozens of people and agencies to have a successful outcome. And we’ve got a lot of good partners.”
Buckner turns 60 this year, but is still seeking new opportunities. He is interested in possibly doing mediations and arbitrations for private disputes, likely those which would include family court. He said he wants to help people who either don’t have the money or cannot wait for a delayed court date to find a resolution. But he’s open to opportunities.
“I’m going to stay in the work force,” Buckner said. “I started working at the (Smith & Buckner) funeral home at 8 years old. I’m going to have a job somewhere.”
In the mean time, he’s spending time with family and helping his 93-year-old mother, Helen, who “has plenty” for him to do.
“I’m grateful I got the opportunity to serve,” Buckner said. “It wouldn’t have had it but for the people of Chatham. It was a humble job, but an important job. And I’ll always be a Chatham boy.”
Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@chathamnr.com.