Retiring Judge Receives Highest Honor

Veterans Treatment Court founders awarded for service

When Jacquelyn Lee thought about going back to school, she got a piece of advice that steered her down a path that ended up changing lives.

“I taught high school for 18 years and was thinking of going into administration with the school system,” Lee said. “My husband said that if I was going back to school I should make it worth something.”

Educator Lee became Lawyer Lee and eventually District Court Judge Jacquelyn Lee. The journey she embarked on more than 30 years ago ended last week, as Lee received The Friend of the Court Award, the highest honor given to a judge. North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley remotely presented the amicus curiae award to Lee, who took a break from presiding over cases in a court she helped create to receive the plaque.

“I am so glad to be able to be here and thank her for her service,” said Beasley. “She’s an amazing judge and has been an amazing chief judge. As I have talked to folks about who might replace her, everybody had resoundingly great things to say. That doesn’t surprise me at all. She started out as an educator and brought a lot of diversity to the bench when she became a district court judge.”

Lee credited her past with fostering a desire to help change people’s futures.

Coming from education offered Lee a perspective on life she wished other law professionals would take into the field.

“I think when a person enters the legal profession after having done something else in life, it gives you a different perspective of people and the predicaments these people are in,” Lee said. “It gives you a broader view of society and how the judicial system makes society better.”

This perspective guided Lee as she spearheaded the creation of the District 11A-Regional Veterans Treatment Court, a nationally and internationally recognized endeavor designed to help veterans overcome mental health and substance abuse issues.

The court is based in Harnett County and now covers 21 counties in central and eastern North Carolina.

“We were the first veterans court in North Carolina,” said Lee. “We’re still one of only a handful. We worked hard to make it an exemplary court, but it’s not just me. It’s been a lot of people. We have worked together.”

It was created under a partnership between Lee, former District Attorney Vernon Stewart, Harnett County’s Clerk of Superior Court Marsha Johnson, the Veterans Health Administration, Harnett County Veterans Services, Central Carolina Community College and several other service organizations.

The court reports a 6% recidivism rate, adopting the motto “keeping free those that kept us free.”

“It’s been phenomenal to see the expanse of the court and what it has done for people,” Lee said. “We do things for individuals that helps make society a better place. Sometimes the people in the court are the only people they have.”

The Veterans Treatment Court Team also honored Lee’s service by presenting her and Stewart with the Eagle Feather Service Award.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Lee said. “I am so thankful.”

Lee’s career ended at the close of one of the more challenging years in recent memory. As COVID-19 shuttered many facets of society, Lee and her staff soldiered on, abiding by the various safety protocols while ensuring the veterans court stayed open.

“What a year to retire,” said Lee. “I tried as much as possible to make sure I am the anchor of society and the courts remained open. If the court can’t remain open, and that’s not something people can depend upon, it helps add to the chaos that people have experienced the past few months. I’ve tried to make sure courts remain open and we do as much as we can and we’re doing what we need to do for society.”

Lee’s leadership wasn’t lost on those around her.

“She has kept us together and fought our battles,” District Court Judge Joy Jones said. “With this past year and COVID and all the changes we’ve had to go through with the court system, she has done a great job making it work and making it the best situation we can [have].”

Jones will preside over the Veterans Treatment Court after Lee’s departure.

As a new year begins and a chapter of her life ends, Lee said she will miss the relationships and the daily challenges of deciphering the law.

“I enjoy people,” said Lee. “It’s great intellectual exercise when you’re looking at the law, hearing the arguments from both sides about how the law should be implied. It’s doing mental exercises in your head. I love the intellectual feeling.”

When it comes to what comes next, Lee isn’t quite sure, but she is sure to make it worth something.

-Dunn Daily Record