Written by attorney Bill Powers

Powers presents NCAJ Award to Hon. Ralph Gingles - PART II

Gaston Gazette June 29, 2011 continued from PART I

Multifaceted career

Gingles said he was surprised and grateful to receive the award. He said he is aware that a District Court judge may not command the prestige of judiciaries at higher levels, but serving in that capacity affords a more revealing day-to-day glimpse of society.

“District Court is where the people really come in contact with your legal system," he said. “You’re impacting people’s lives every minute you’re on the bench. For me it’s quite rewarding because I have the opportunity to utilize all those experiences I’ve had over the years, to try to do the right thing in criminal cases both for the state and the people who appear before me.

Known to his friends and colleagues as “Skip," Gingles was born and raised in Gaston County. After earning his law degree from the University of Virginia, he returned here in the early 1970s and became a private defense attorney.

Gingles was practicing law in Gastonia in 1981 and had already worked on several high-profile murder cases when he agreed to join a lawsuit against the state’s voting districts. Lawmakers had recently redrawn the state’s voting maps, but the Gingles suit successfully claimed that the districts violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting minority votes. Because of the precedent it set, the landmark case had sweeping influence across the country, allowing more black candidates a chance to be elected.

As the ripples of that lawsuit continued to take effect, Gingles continued practicing law as an attorney. In 1995, he was approached by the local bar about filling an opening for the District Court judgeship in Gaston County, which he did.

Gingles has served on the District Court bench for most of the last 16 years, both as an appointed and an elected judge.

“There are times I miss it," he said of being an attorney. “Lawyers like the idea of hearing their voice and being on center stage. Someone told me the mark of a good judge is someone who presides and rules, but shuts up and lets the lawyers try their case."

Secrets of success

As a young man, Gingles worked in a mill, waited tables and even did construction. His life experiences have aided his rulings countless times, such as in one case when an accused contractor was trying to explain why he hadn’t taken advantage of a local resident. Gingles knew from the man’s flawed argument that he was crooked.

“I’ve done a little bit of everything in my life," he said. “I think it helps me a lot."

Being a good trial judge takes a knowledge of the law, temperament, patience and compassion, Gingles said. Sometimes it calls for being very stern.

“There are bad people out there who need to be dealt with accordingly," he said. “There are good people who find themselves in bad situations."

Many outside observers adopt a ‘lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality,’ Gingles said.

“In the criminal arena, everybody wants you to put the guilty party in jail … until they’re in that situation themselves," he said. “Punishment is fine, but if you can help someone turn their lives around, that’s important as well."

Everyone can’t be helped, but many can, Gingles said.

“There may be an element of punishment in a criminal case, but you’re also trying to figure out how you can fashion a sentence so that a person will not find themselves in that same situation down the road," he said.

Gingles and his wife, Juanita, have two grown children. His current term in District 27-A expires in 2014, and if he remains in good health and voters will it, he said he may continue to serve until the mandatory retirement age of 72.

Colleagues such as Gastonia attorney Jim Funderburk say that would be in Gaston County’s best interest.

“I don’t know of any lawyer in town who doesn’t have a really high opinion of him," said Funderburk. “He’s one of those people who’s almost more than the sum of his parts. When he’s on the bench, he’s just got a tremendous ability to make good judgments."

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