From mechanic to courtroom leader, and the path along the way

Judge Brenda Branch

Judge Brenda Branch - Photo by Les Atkins

Halifax County Chief District Court Judge Brenda Branch never anticipated she’d end up at the front of the courtroom.

“I never really had aspirations to be a judge,” Branch said.

“I went to law school to have my own business, but things happened so fast and I liked it, so I stayed.”

While Branch’s legal rise has been very rapid, she took a long road to get it started, putting in nearly a full career in a totally different field before deciding to pursue the law.

Branch was born in Garysburg in 1959, and graduated from Gumberry High School in 1977. Her first career, with Albemarle Paper Company, began shortly after graduation when she entered the company’s apprenticeship program, which continues today under KapStone Paper and Packaging.

“They train you to be a first-class mechanic,” Branch said.

“It’s a very good program.” However, Branch faced barriers related to race and gender when she began with Albemarle.

“They still had ‘colored’ on one of the bathroom doors,” Branch said. “It wasn’t long after affirmative action laws had been passed, and I was the first African-American female they hired in the apprenticeship program. There were some who didn’t like me and didn’t want me there because I was African-American, and others who didn’t want me there because I was a woman.”

Branch was quick to stress, however, she met with more than just resistance.

“As with any group, you find those who are open-minded and helpful,” Branch said.

“They gave me respect for my work, and I needed to prove to myself I could do as well as anyone else. I’ve never been a quitter, I’ve always been a fighter.”

For 20 years, Branch held the position of AClass Maintenance Mechanic, but an interest in criminal justice led her to pursue further education. “I knew I didn’t want to retire from the paper mill,” Branch said.

“I had always had an interest in criminal justice, the psychology of it, what makes people tick.”

She obtained her bachelor’s in Justice and Public Policy from North Carolina Wesleyan College, then began working on a master’s, but left that track to pursue law school.

“A friend of mine, we went to school together, we were talking and she said ‘Let’s go to law school,’” Branch said.

“I hadn’t thought about going to law school.” However, Branch was accepted into the North Carolina Central University night law program, and four years later, in 2001, Branch graduated law school and passed the bar.

A legal internship with the Halifax County Department of Social Services followed, and she was hired by Halifax County District Attorney Bob Caudle shortly afterward as an Assistant District Attorney.

“He taught me a whole lot about prosecuting,” Branch said.

The caseload, Branch said, is something most people don’t understand.

“You walk into a courtroom as a prosecutor and you have a whole docket of cases,” Branch said. “You have to uphold the Constitution in all of these, and you can’t possibly try all these cases.”

In July 2004, Branch said, she left the Halifax County District Attorney’s Office to work for Valerie Asbell, District Attorney for District 6B, covering Northampton, Hertford and Bertie counties.

BRING ALL YOU HAVE TO BEAR IN YOUR WORK, YOUR ABSOLUTE CARE AND CONCERN. IF YOU HAVE THAT CARE AND CONCERN, YOU WILL BE SUCCESSFUL. YOU WILL BE FAIR, YOU WILL BE FIRM AND YOU WILL KNOW WHEN MERCY IS DUE, COMPASSION IS DUE, AND JUSTICE IS DUE.

“She had a statewide reputation for being a great prosecutor,” Branch said. “I wanted to know what she knew.”

Branch was put in charge of prosecutions in Bertie County, and said she learned a great deal under Asbell.

“I learned how to actually prepare,” Branch said. “And how to be able to know when a case should be tried and not tried.”

During this time, Branch was able to establish relationships with several of the 6B judges, but Halifax County kept calling to her.

“When I left (in 2004) several people encouraged me to run for Halifax County District Attorney,” Branch said.

“At first I said no way, but then more people from inside the judicial system asked, so I worked and ran my campaign at nights and on weekends.”

That was 2006, but Branch came up short, losing to Bill Graham in a primary after garnering 44 percent of the vote, a number she’s proud of.“That wasn’t bad for working fulltime and campaigning in my spare time,” Branch said.

“To this day I don’t know how I was bold enough to actually do it. I had a lot of good people who supported me.”

Shortly afterwards, another door of opportunity opened for Branch, when late state Sen. Robert Holloman helped push through a bill creating an additional Halifax County judgeship, a judgeship Holloman wanted Branch to fill.

Before she could accept, Branch had to know if others doing the job could see her doing so as well. “I talked to judges,” Branch said. “I asked them, ‘Can you see me as a judge in Halifax County? Is that something you could have respect for?’ If I couldn’t have the respect of my peers, I didn’t want it.”

In January 2007, Branch officially became a District Court Judge in Halifax County. Currently, she occupies the post of Chief District Court Judge as well, adding administrative responsibilities to her job description.

“It’s an awesome responsibility,” Branch said of being a judge. “It requires patience sometimes, compassion sometimes, humor sometimes and always requires the law and its interpretation. It’s never boring.”

Halifax County Sheriff Jeff Frazier, who has known Branch since she was a prosecutor, has been impressed with her transition to the bench.

“From knowing Brenda as an assistant D.A. and then becoming a judge, she has been a judge that asked for respect and gets respect from the people in the courtroom, and that says a lot,” Frazier said.

“It says she’s in charge, and is going to handle every case a judge has to and be fair with the public and law enforcement at the same time. That’s all you can expect from a judge.”

As a judge, Branch stresses people respect the justice system.

“It’s going to take your time, your freedom and your money and you’re not going to get them back,” Branch said.

“That’s an awesome machine that can do that, and people need to understand it before they come to court.”

As for anyone wishing to make the law their profession, whether they choose to be an attorney or a judge, Branch has some advice.

“Be diligent about your work,” Branch said.

“Bring all you have to bear in your work, your absolute care and concern. If you have that care and concern, you will be successful. You will be fair, you will be firm and you will know when mercy is due, compassion is due, and justice is due.”

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