Sutton wants to extend public-service career

Published 9:41 am Friday, April 9, 2010

Staff Writer

Watsi Sutton sees her candidacy for a District Court seat as an opportunity to extend her public-service career.
“Superior Court is certainly thought of, I think, as being the more glamorous court,” the Washington attorney said. “You’ve got your serious criminal offenses or your high-dollar civil cases. But I like to think of District Court as where people live. Most people will not find themselves in either civil or criminal Superior Court, but many more of our community members find themselves in District Court, whether it’s a traffic ticket or a custody matter or something along those lines.”
Sutton is one of four candidates seeking election to the 2nd Judicial District seat held by retiring Judge Sam Grimes.
Sutton said she has essentially been dedicated to public service throughout her career.
Sutton began her professional journey as a staff attorney in the New Bern office of Legal Aid of North Carolina.
She served under then-newly elected District Attorney Seth Edwards for a little less than a year before returning to Legal Aid as managing attorney in the New Bern office.
“That organization represents eligible citizens who are within a certain percentage of the federal poverty guidelines as well as the elderly, victims of domestic violence and other eligible groups based on grant criteria, for free at no charge,” she said. “So it’s pretty much a public office.”
At Legal Aid, Sutton said, she litigated against national mortgage companies and was involved in “aggressive negotiations” with those companies and banks “to eliminate predatory lending terms.”
“In many cases, we were able to significantly reduce the debt,” she commented. “In one such case, we were able to reduce the debt to about half, saw payments drop to affordable rates for our clients. They were able to maintain their homes and have families not be displaced.”
Sutton is now the sole practicing attorney in her private law office.
Asked to describe what a District Court judge does, Sutton said this court is where traffic and misdemeanor cases are resolved. On the civil side, the court handles everything from divorce to custody to child delinquency issues, she related.
The court also deals with monetary disputes of up to $15,000, according to Sutton.
Though she’s just 34, Sutton acknowledged that she would be willing to remain on the District Court bench until retirement.
“I say that because I very much view myself as being one whose passion is service,” she said. “I have tried to dedicate my legal career, as much as possible, to service, particularly on behalf of granting access, broad access, to the courts to all people.”
Sutton said that she has taken the least-traveled path in her jobs, adding that she has been in public service longer than private legal work.
Sutton says she charges a reduced fee or works pro bono for about 10 to 15 percent of her clients, based not on ability to pay but on a desire to help.
“I believe more than anything that this is a position of service,” she said of the office for which she’s running.
Watsi Sutton
Age: 34.
Address: 111 Smaw Road, Washington.
Occupation: Attorney.
Education: Graduated from Washington High School in 1997, ranking fifth in class of 225; went on to North Carolina A&T State University on a full academic scholarship, graduating summa cum laude; went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law on a full academic scholarship, graduating with law degree.
Immediate family: Unmarried.
How long a Beaufort County resident: Has lived in Beaufort County all of her life, with the exception of her college years and about three years of work in New Bern.
Experience as an elected official: None.
Other relevant experience: Former assistant district attorney, former staff attorney and managing attorney in the New Bern office of Legal Aid of North Carolina and currently a private attorney in Washington.
Last book read: “Mental Toughness for Success,” by I.V. Hilliard.