Hail to the ‘Chief’

Published 4:23 pm Friday, January 5, 2024

JACKSON – When Judicial District 7 officials begin looking for the local area’s first ever Chief Public Defender, they searched for an individual who not only carried the proper credentials for the job, but more so someone who has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to justice throughout their legal career.

That search stopped when it reached Tonza D. Ruffin.

In a New Year’s Day ceremony inside the Superior Courtroom of the historic Northampton County Courthouse, Ruffin was sworn in as the District’s Chief Public Defender, an office created through the Administrative Office of the North Carolina Court system, Indigent Defense Services, and The Defense Bar with funding appropriated in the most recent state budget.

The Public Defender’s office will staff 12 attorneys (to include Ruffin), three legal assistants, one administrative assistant, a social worker, and a private investigator. The main office will be in the new, soon-to-be-opened Northampton County Courthouse with satellite offices located in Bertie, Hertford, and Halifax counties.

Public defenders provide legal representation at state expense for persons who cannot afford to hire private counsel but are entitled to counsel under constitutional or statutory authority in cases ranging from criminal charges to civil commitment, juvenile proceedings, or loss of parental rights. In counties not served by a public defender, the courts rely on local attorneys who volunteer to provide these services at a specified hourly rate that is often considerably lower than customary rates for most private attorneys.

“I stand before you with deep humility and immense gratitude for the trust bestowed upon me,” Ruffin said on Monday morning just after accepting the oath of office from Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant. “This appointment is not merely a personal achievement, but a reflection of this community’s collective commitment to ensuring that justice is served equitably and comprehensively.

“As I take on the responsibility of this esteemed position, I’m acutely aware of the weight it carries: (1) the rights of the vulnerable; (2) the duty to uphold the principles of fairness and justice; and (3) the privilege to make a lasting impact on the lives of those who depend on us,” Ruffin added.

Ruffin stressed the need to provide exceptional legal representation to every individual, regardless of their background or circumstance, and said she was humbled to create a team of dedicated professionals who will share in this commitment.

“I am eager to carry forward the lessons learned in the pursuit of justice,” Ruffin stressed as she praised colleagues and mentors that have guided her career to this point. “Together we embark on a journey to establish and operate the Public Defender’s Office with diligence, compassion, and a steadfast commitment to the principles that underpin our legal system. We will work tirelessly to ensure that justice is not a privilege for the few, but a right for all.”

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant administered the oath of office. He recalled that 23 years ago he swore in Ruffin to practice law in the state of North Carolina.

“I’ve had the privilege over those 23 years to witness her becoming one of the finest defense attorneys that has ever appeared in my court,” Judge Grant said. “She is a highly skilled trial attorney. She’s passionate about representing her clients. She sets high standards for herself and I’m confident that she will apply the same high standards of the attorneys who will work out of her office.”

Judge Grant thanked State House Representative Michael Wray of Gaston for making the Public Defender Office a reality in the local district.

“Had it not been for his efforts and commitment, we would not be here this morning,” Judge Grant said. “He understood the need we discussed with him.”

Judge Grant also thanked Chairman Charles Tyner and the Northampton County Board of Commissioners for dedicating the space in their courthouse for the main office of the Public Defender.

“This is something very unique for our community,” said Rep. Wray in his remarks. “Everybody has opinions and ideas, but at the end of the day we’ve got to make our court system the best it can be, be more efficient, be more effective.

“We’re so happy to have one of our own to come home and run this office. It was my honor to work within the General Assembly to get this [new office] in the [state] budget. I wish Ms. Ruffin great blessings and great endeavors,” Rep. Wray concluded.

District Court Judge Teresa R. Freeman presented Ruffin to the Court for swearing in. Freeman stressed that Ruffin is a champion of “justice, fairness, and doing what’s right, even when she has to do it alone.”

Judge Freeman praised Ruffin for her work outside the courtroom, particularly through Esquires for Education, a non-profit organization that provides opportunities for young African-American males to seek a college education.

Following the swearing in ceremony held Monday at the Northampton County Courthouse, Tonza Ruffin (left) joins with Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Brenda Branch in signing the official documents. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

“She also visited churches and community groups where she drafted personal wills and other legal documents for only $25 and then would donate that money to Esquires for Education. What a wonderful woman,” Judge Freeman stressed.

The Judge remarked that Ruffin serves as a great role model to young people, particularly her daughters.

“I have always admired her ability to mother her girls and allow them to experience life in their own way,” Judge Freeman stated.

As far as Ruffin’s professional life, Judge Freeman noted that she was a “lover of the law.”

“I’ve watched her provide superior legal service to our citizens,” she remarked. “Then she moved to Chapel Hill. I was so afraid we would never see her again. When I learned she was considering this position [Chief Public Defender], I was thrilled that our citizens would benefit from her courtroom battles, her teaching experiences, and her overall legal expertise.

“Whether Tonza is being a mother, sister, daughter, friend, business woman, courtroom advocate, community advocate, author, writer, blogger, or podcaster, you are guaranteed to experience the same Tonza – a serious, super intelligent, dedicated young woman who is indeed the total package. She is going to give you her all,” Judge Freeman added.

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Brenda Branch presided over the court session.

“Have an open mind to help her [Ruffin]; be slow to criticize her, and pray for her. She is building a house and it must stand firm and fair, and it must have longevity,” Judge Branch stated.

Judge W. Rob Lewis and Attorney Sammy D. Webb also took part in the event as they respectively opened and closed with prayer.

A native of Bertie County, Ruffin holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science with a minor in Women’s Studies from East Carolina University. Her legal journey led her to attain a Juris Doctorate Degree from Georgia State University College of Law.

Following her law school tenure, Ruffin returned to her hometown where she began practicing law upon admission to the North Carolina Bar. Over the past 23 years, she has been a passionate advocate for the underserved, handling a diverse range of cases – from capital murder and other major felonies to misdemeanor offenses, minor traffic violations, and domestic relations matters.

Ruffin has contributed to legal education as a member of the Faculty of the Felony Defender Trial School at the UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Government. She has also served on the Board of Directors for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham.

Ruffin has earned recognition for her outstanding contributions in the field. The North Carolina Indigent Defense Services Commission honored her with the prestigious “Professor John Rubin Award for Extraordinary Contributions to Indigent Defense Services Training Programs.” In addition, the Windsor/Bertie County Chamber of Commerce presented her with the “2016 Black History Celebration Excellence from the Bar Award,” and the Ahoskie Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. bestowed upon her the esteemed “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Service Award.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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