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Social Mobility: Judge Presides with Compassionate Authority
by Chuck Gordon

Imagine it’s your first time in court. You’re a good person. You always wear your seat belt, you give your neighbors a cup of sugar or a jump-start if they need it, you take your library books back a day early. And you could have sworn the speed limit was still 55!

You’ve seen trials on TV, courtroom dramas where the prosecution has the accused cornered and is going for the jugular. You enjoy seeing the bad guy being tripped up and justice being served.

But this is different. Now it’s you on trial. Well, not exactly on trial. There’s no jury of your peers. It’s just you, your lawyer (probably) and the judge. But it’s no less tense, no less intimidating. All the moisture that should be in your mouth has been transferred to your palms.

It’s at times like these that the good people of Cumberland County, N.C., are glad they have the patient, understanding Cull Jordan ’98 on the bench.

Jordan remembers those courtroom dramas. The southern wisdom of Andy Griffith’s Matlock, those engrossing reruns of Perry Mason, even Judge Wapner’s level-headedness on The People’s Court. As a 12-year-old, Jordan turned away from the TV and proclaimed, with the calm assuredness with which he now presides over a North Carolina district court, that he wanted to be an attorney.

Jordan’s parents, a brick mason and a book-store clerk, did nothing to dissuade him. He could be anything he wanted to be, as long as he worked hard for it. Maybe not Luke Skywalker (Jordan is a huge Star Wars fan), but certainly an attorney.

Besides, he was, if nothing else, supremely persuasive.

“That same year, I was debating a math grade with my teacher,” Jordan says. “She changed my grade and also remarked that she thought I would make a great attorney. Math is math, but she changed it.” 

Jordan doesn’t bother with 2 plus 2 equals 5 these days; it’s now his mind that others try to sway. In 2020, he finally threw his hat in the ring to become a judge, a move many of his friends thought should have happened years earlier. In July of 2021, Gov. Roy Cooper appointed him to the bench in Cumberland County, where Jordan had been serving alternately as an assistant district attorney and in private practice for two decades.

Judge Cull Jordan sitting in a courtroom

For nearly two years, Jordan, 46, has taken the same deliberate, thoughtful approach to adjudication that he did to prosecution and defense.

“I haven’t had any complaints,” says Toni King, chief district court judge for Cumberland County. “He comes in, does his work, is always willing to go anywhere he’s needed. He has a great work ethic.”

Jordan gets that diligence and dedication from his parents. His father, Cull Jordan Jr., was a modern-day John Henry, rarely missing a day of work in what can be a brutal occupation. “There are structures that he put up in Charlotte that will be standing for the next hundred years,” the younger Jordan says. His mother – whom most readers know as “Miss Cindy” – was a fixture in the Wingate bookstore for nearly four decades (last year, the store was renamed the Cindy Jordan Campus Store). “I can count on two hands the number of days she was out sick in her career,” Jordan says.

Jordan took the lessons learned at their knees – the tireless work ethic, the quest for fairness – and has become one of the most respected members of the legal profession in Cumberland County.

Family-fueled success

Jordan is one of 10 judges presiding over N.C. judicial district 12. He and his colleagues rotate through assignments, usually spending a week at a time on different courts. One week he’s handling temporary custody hearings, the next it’s traffic violations. Whereas Superior Court involves felony cases, District Court deals only with misdemeanors. But that doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high. For Jordan, one of the most difficult weeks is when he works DSS court. “That involves dealing with parents whose children have been removed from the home,” Jordan says. “That’s a pretty heavy courtroom.”

Jordan wound up in Fayetteville by chance. His first interview out of law school was with the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, and he was impressed with Ed Grannis, the longtime district attorney there. “When I spoke to him, to be honest, I kind of got a Wingate feeling,” he says. “Everything was very family-like in the DA’s office, and it still is.”

Before being appointed judge, Jordan did two tours of duty in the DA’s Office and two stints in private practice (he was a partner at Smith, Dickey & Dempster when he was appointed to the bench). He experienced the court system from both sides, making him “uniquely qualified” to adjudicate now, says Billy West, the current district attorney for Cumberland County and a close friend of Jordan’s.

“Whether you’re a citizen coming in representing yourself, whether you’re an assistant DA, a public defender or a private attorney, everybody thinks they’re getting a fair shake when they’re in front of Cull,” he adds.

Jordan’s sense of fairness comes through in his approach to the law, which is to personalize each case. As an attorney, he treated his clients as humanely as possible, as if they were family members. Instead of simply telling them the number of months they could expect to serve if they pleaded guilty vs. going to trial, he would break it down into terms that demonstrated how each scenario would affect their life.

“It’s your right to have a trial,” Jordan recalls telling clients. “But if you take this plea, I can tell you that you might be out in time to take your son to his first day of school. If we go to trial and we lose, you might make it to his high school graduation.”

“The numbers were just so robotic that people did not respond to those,” he says, “but when you put it in terms of life, it hit them more.”

As a judge, Jordan wants to make sure he hears both sides of the story. His goal is a fair and equitable outcome, and to achieve that, he wants all parties to relax and feel that they can trust him.

“He’s very patient,” King says. “He listens, and he tries to make the best decision for those individuals who are standing before him.”

“Cull makes a great judge because he has such an even-tempered, even-keeled demeanor. He’s very fair to both sides. He’ll give both sides the opportunity to be heard.”

“It’s easy to forget that for most people who come to court, it’s their first time there,” Jordan says. “Not everyone is familiar with the system. To most people it’s very foreign. It’s intimidating. They get nervous. I think of my mom. If my mom had to come to court, how would I want a judge to treat her? She would be terrified.

“When I’m on the bench, I just try to use what I’ve been taught: to be fair, to treat people well. I try to explain as much as I can, to try to help them through the process, because it is scary, and it is intimidating.”

People who know Jordan’s mom – and many of you out there do – understand not only that she would indeed be unacquainted with the inside of a courtroom, but also that she and Cull Jordan Jr. would have prepared their son well to be in charge of one. Cindy was a clerk in the campus bookstore for 37 years, during which time she lent a sympathetic ear to many a student, faculty member and staffer. She always knew the scuttlebutt on campus, and she could sympathize with students, since she sent both of her kids to Wingate: Five years before Cull enrolled, his sister, Connie, graduated as a Bulldog.

“I was in awe of how she would handle herself in that student store,” Cull says of his mom. “It was like she had her own gravitational pull. When people walked in that store, they looked for her. She treated students like she treated me.”

Jordan says he most resembles his father, who died in 2002, soon after Cull graduated from law school. “My dad was always very soft-spoken,” Jordan says. “He never said a lot, but when he spoke, everyone listened. My mom, of course, is the exact opposite. What they shared in common was that they were just very genuine, very down-to-earth. I think I get that from them. I never saw them mistreat anyone. They treated everyone with respect.”

Jordan does likewise, often in situations where lives are at stake.

“Cull makes a great judge because he has such an even-tempered, even-keeled demeanor, which I think is what you want in a judge,” West says. “He’s very fair to both sides. He’ll give both sides the opportunity to be heard.”

Jordan had the quiet tenacity and logical brain to reach his goals, but his parents provided the fuel. They were especially good at planting seeds in his fertile mind.

“I’ll tell you this: My parents always had great faith in me,” Jordan says. “It goes back even to when I was in high school band. Mom said, ‘You know what? You’ll make a great drum major one day.’ I’m like, ‘Sure, Mom. Whatever.’ Three years later, I’m the drum major. She’s like, ‘Cull, you’re going to make a great judge one day. I see it in you.’ Next thing I know, I’m a judge.”

Growing up on campus

Jordan spent much of his summers at Wingate, helping his mom in the bookstore, roaming the campus, playing pool in the Dickson-Palmer Center. He got to know the professors, who would stop by and chat with his mom while passing through. He felt so at home at Wingate that enrolling at the University after high school was a natural next step.

“Wingate is in my blood,” he says. “I had a distinct advantage at Wingate, because I knew where everything was. I knew every nook and cranny of the school.”

Jordan lived on campus during his Wingate days, serving three years as an RA (a natural fit for a budding judge). He says that Wingate prepared him well for law school. He spent the fall semester of his senior year in London with a group from Wingate, led by Dr. Rob Prevost, associate professor of philosophy. A member of the N.C. Bar Association and a practicing attorney, Prevost helped Jordan study for the Law School Admission Test every Wednesday in their terraced house in London.

Cull Jordan sitting at a table, talking to a colleague

The two also worked together one summer on a research project, with Jordan examining cases in which members of the clergy had been sued for malpractice. “Here was the most common case: A couple with a troubled marriage goes to their pastor for counseling and the pastor runs off with the wife,” Prevost says. “It happens a lot.”

Jordan used the tools of the day to find cases, study them and forge them into a research paper. The tools may have changed in the intervening 25 years, but the basics are the same, and Jordan absorbed those lessons well and created an engaging, informative paper.

“I remember him being diligent and insightful and smart and learning the tools quickly,” Prevost says. “When he went to law school, he would have had a little head start, I think, because of what we did.”

By the time he enrolled at North Carolina Central University School of Law, there was no intimidation factor. “I had an opportunity to interact more with people because of the size of Wingate,” he says. “Speaking with professors and interacting with them was not foreign to me. I did it at Wingate all the time. They’re not scary individuals. They’re regular people.”

That’s exactly how Jordan comes across to his constituents: disarming, helpful, but still with authority. It would be easy to get bogged down in legal what-ifs during court, but that famous Jordan-family work ethic keeps him prepared.

“It’s a busy profession,” he says. “It involves a lot. You really have to stay on top of everything, because it’s constantly changing and evolving, often for the better. That’s one of the things I like about the legal profession. You have to expand your mind. You have to stay on your toes.”

The result is a fair shake for the people of Cumberland County.

“I know that Monroe and Wingate are home for him,” West says, “but we’re glad to steal him away and make Fayetteville his second home, because I do think that our community is better because he’s there.”