From The Board to The Bench for David Carson

David Carson is about to become a judge.
David Carson is about to become a judge.
David Carson is about to become a judge.

David B. Carson has been a trial lawyer since shortly after he graduated from Washington & Lee University law school in 1988. Until recently he was also the Roanoke City School Board chairman, helping steer the Roanoke public school system through a period that included school closings, major renovations, two brand new high schools, the drive to ramp up graduation rates and the Victory Stadium vs. on-campus football stadium decision.

Local delegates and state senators (Ralph Smith, Onzlee Ware and John Edwards) pushed for a Carson appointment to a judgeship and now on July 1st he will become a 23rd District Circuit Court Judge, presiding over trials in Roanoke City, Roanoke County and the City of Salem. Carson stepped down from the school board as required by law early in June, a move which was tough for him.

The Virginia General Assembly approved funding for Carson’s position in the spring. He will actually be involved with three distinct courts-within-the-court: Juvenile & Domestic Relations, the General District Court (minor crimes and money issues) and the Circuit Court. That’s where Carson will hear appeals from the other two courts: “it also deals with more serious crimes – felonies, divorces, custody matters and [major] civil matters.” 

Carson dealt exclusively with civil cases as an attorney with Johnson, Ayers & Matthews after clerking for a year-plus for Federal Judge Jack Kiser in Danville, so much of this will be new to him. He’s never substituted as a judge either, something else that is fairly common for those elevated to the bench. “The criminal [cases] will be absolutely brand new to me,” said Carson. Fellow members of the Roanoke Bar Association have reached out to him “in a totally appropriate way,” to offer their wisdom on what he might face as a judge.

Carson said he made notes over the past two decades, observing judges from the attorney’s table, noting what he liked and didn’t like style-wise. Kiser was a big influence; Carson remembers thinking “If I ever get to do this [become a judge] I want to do it just like him.”  He has come to appreciate how many judges have handled situations and people over the years.

As part of his preparation, Carson was sent to what he jokingly calls “baby judge’s school,” a two week period that included a section on how to recognize bias – inherent and implicit – that could affect the way a judge renders a decision. In many ways people don’t even realize they are biased. “Our minds tend to group things – fairly and unfairly,” he points out; “its just the way our minds work.”  Carson would like to be remembered as a judge this way: “He always listened – and he was always fair. That is absolutely what I’ll strive to be.”

As for his time on the School Board, working closely with fellow board members and school superintendent Dr. Rita Bishop, Carson called it. “The second most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” after his marriage and three children. He’s proud of the Forest Park over-age academy that helps those having a problem with getting through high school and for the expansion of athletic programs (he supported on-campus football stadiums at William Fleming and Patrick Henry high schools). 

Bishop was hired to replace Marvin Thompson about ten months into Carson’s watch; he calls her, “The finest education mind I have ever met.” Carson said Bishop could make more money elsewhere with her background but said she is “absolutely devoted to [the city]. We as a school board were absolutely devoted to her.” Todd Putney has replaced Carson as the school board chair

Carson got involved with the school board back in 2005 after deciding that his family would take a stand and not flee for the county or other suburbs. He would work to make the school system better. Realizing that the existing infrastructure “was too large for our populace,” Carson and company weathered the public storm in making the decision to shutter underutilized schools, moving students elsewhere.

“That was very tough,” said Carson, noting that it’s easier to keep up with maintenance when there are fewer buildings to oversee. Managing that debate process, which could get heated at times, honed skills that can help as a judge, according to Carson.

Graduation rates that rose from the the 50th percentile to around 80% during his time on the school board is something else that makes him proud. He gives the lion’s share of credit to Bishop, teachers and administrators that took on the challenge and were successful in bringing those rates up. “You make time for something that’s important,” said Carson, who was also very active as a youth athletics coach when his children were younger. “[The school board] was important to me.”

By Gene Marrano