Article courtesy of Lenoir News-Topic. Written by Kara Fohner
When Kim Clark first applied to work at the Caldwell County Clerk of Court’s Office over 25 years ago, she said she imagined that the work would involve mostly paperwork.
“I remember when I came and applied for this job in 1990, I thought…it’s dealing with papers. That’s my thing. I love organization,” she said.
Now clerk of court herself, Clark says her job involves far more than she first reckoned. “It’s so different from anything I perceived it to be. You work with every aspect of the court system. Things are different every day. Laws change yearly. We get those changes before the judges and attorneys do,” she said.
This is the kind of thing that Clark talks about to students and civic groups as a volunteer with the North Carolina Speakers Bureau, a free public service launched last year to inform the public about the functions of the state’s judicial branch and the North Carolina Court System. Clark says most people have a limited knowledge of the inner workings of the court system.
“I love this, because you’ll have a group of kids sitting in front of you, … and they’re just excited to be out because they’re on a field trip. I start out by looking at them and I say, “Who can tell me what the clerk of court does?” And you’ll immediately get the blank stare. And I’ll say, “No, tell me. What do you think?’” Clark said.
“People really don’t realize what goes on in the court system, or just in this building alone…They think it’s more of a paper job, and I explain to them that the girls that are in here, the ladies and gentleman that are in here, are sworn-in court officials. We’re taxed with keeping the official court record of minutes for a session of court.”
North Carolina is one of the few states left in which court clerks are recognized on the same judicial level as District Court judges and preside over certain types of cases, Clark said. “We still handle hearings. We still have our own cases that we hear and settle matters, because in its inception that was to try to help keep things out of District Court and try to keep their load freer,” she said. “Most people don’t know that. They don’t know that I have hearings, and I have the ability to hold people in contempt and place them in jail and enter judgments and do things along that line.”
Clark is a judge of probate. She has the authority to hear a variety of proceedings, including those related to adoption, name changes, and whether an individual is competent to handle his or her own affairs. She is also able to issue arrest and search warrants, among many other responsibilities.
In addition, court clerks are required to maintain an official record of court minutes. “If they are not accurate, it can cause all sorts of problems. Mistakes here don’t affect just the file. They affect somebody’s life,” Clark said. “They’re responsible for the upkeep of evidence that’s entered in court. They’re responsible for the upkeep of the records of witnesses in cases. … And when the judge takes a lunch break or takes a break, their responsibility doesn’t end. They’re still working just as hard as they can to make sure they’re up to speed and have the paperwork current and ready to be entered when they get out of court that afternoon.”
Clerks also handle a constant stream of questions and requests from the general public. “A lot of people never expect that they’re going to be in the courthouse for anything. So, it’s an intense thing for them,” Clark said. “And they come in, and whatever their problem is, it’s the most important thing in the world to them. And I try to stress that to all the ladies (in the clerk’s office), especially the ones on the front counter.
They don’t know what’s going on, what to expect, so try to be as patient and give them as much of an explanation as you can about what’s going on.” As laws change yearly, the job constantly evolves, Clark said.
“It’s a constantly changing job. And that’s one of the things that can make it stressful, but also make it interesting and exciting,” she said. “I’ve seen so much since I came in that has evolved.”