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Retired Superior Court Judge Anna Mills Wagoner receives Friend of the Court award from Chief Justice Newby

SALISBURY — When Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Anna Mills Wagoner retired from her position earlier this month, she wanted to ride quietly into the sunset.

Chief District Court Judge Charlie Brown and North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby had other plans.

For several months, the two judges have conspired to honor Wagoner’s career in a significant way. In a ceremony Thursday afternoon held on the steps of the Rowan Museum, which was at one time the Rowan County Courthouse, they did just that.

Newby traveled from Raleigh to present Wagoner with a Friend of the Court award. Described as the justice system’s equivalent to the governor’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine award, it’s the highest honor bestowed by the North Carolina court.

“There are lots of senior resident Superior Court justices across our state,” Newby said. “I know none that have more exemplified professionalism and the ideals of our judicial branch than Judge Wagoner.”

The award recognizes Wagoner’s judicial career, which spans several decades and includes several prestigious positions throughout the legal system. The ceremony to honor Wagoner was held with the support of the Rowan County Bar Association.

Wagoner, who was born in Raleigh but moved to Rowan County as a child, discovered her passion for the courtroom in her late 20s, when she was escorting victims of domestic violence to the Rowan County Courthouse for the Family Crisis Council. At the age of 30, Wagoner decided to enroll in law school at Wake Forest.

“My youngest child started the first grade and I went to law school,” said Wagoner, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Agnes Scott College.

For her first three years of law school, Wagoner commuted almost daily to Winston-Salem. After countless hours in her car and in the classroom, Wagoner graduated from law school and began her legal career. She climbed the ranks and eventually held the post of Chief District Court Judge for District 19C from 1990 until 2001. 

During that time, Wagoner swore in a “newly minted” attorney named Charlie Brown. Before the ceremony on Thursday, Brown showed Wagoner the photo he keeps in his office depicting the moment she swore him in decades ago.

“I’ve known her since the very first day of practicing law in Rowan County,” Brown said.

Wagoner left her post at the Rowan County Courthouse in 2001 when she was appointed to serve as a U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. She returned to the Rowan County Courthouse a decade later after being elected to the Superior Court bench in 2010.

“We remained close throughout those eight years that she was U.S. attorney, and when she returned and ran for Superior Court judge, it was as if she never left,” Brown said. “She never stopped being my mentor.”

Brown described Wagoner’s approach as a judge as “efficient.” Her method of dealing swiftly and fairly with cases, he said, was impressed on the entire Rowan County Courthouse during her tenure.

“She has imprinted on all of us that appear, work in and preside in the courtrooms in this courthouse to put a priority on dispatching justice,” Brown said. “Not just presiding, not just deliberating, but getting the job done, dispatching justice and I think that’s a hallmark of hers.”

In addition to her responsibilities as Superior Court judge, which she said included waking up in the middle of the night to sign search warrants, Wagoner has also served on various state legal boards and committees, including the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, the Pattern Jury Instruction Committee, the Legislative Committee of the Conference of Superior Court Judges and the Board of Governors of the Conference of Superior Court Judges.

Wagoner said serving on the state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, an agency charged with investigating post-conviction claims of innocence, has been very rewarding.

“My husband calls me a hummingbird, which I am probably,” Wagoner said. “I really enjoy being involved in things. Before I went to law school I did lots of volunteer work in Rowan County and in the state. I guess you could say I get bored easily.”

Newby said Wagoner has earned a reputation throughout the state for being asked to serve on “elite commissions.”

“To me, you do that out of the goodness of your heart and your love of the law and your love of the legal profession, the Judicial Branch,” Newby said. “She has done that tirelessly throughout the years.”

In her last year as senior resident Superior Court judge, Wagoner has led the Rowan County Courthouse as it has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was not fun, but it was incredibly challenging,” Wagoner said. “The COVID Courthouse Committee developed a different way of doing things. I think all of us in the court system learned an incredible amount, which I think will benefit the court system for years to come.”

Wagoner’s retirement from Superior Court is a result of North Carolina statute 7A-4.20, which sets the age for retirement for judges at 72. Wagoner was in the midst of her second elected term, which means Gov. Roy Cooper will appoint her replacement. That’s something he’s been doing a lot of recently.

“Fortuitously, it came to pass that a number of judges had to retire right now, this past spring,” Brown said. “… (Cooper’s) been appointing those three positions, DAs, superior and district court judges around the state every week for months. There was a week three weeks ago where he appointed four.”

In accordance with election law, Wagoner’s appointed replacement would have to stand for election in the next congressional cycle, which is 2022. The position is an eight-year term.

Wagoner may no longer serve as a Superior Court judge, but it won’t be long before she’s back on the bench. She has plans to work as an emergency court justice, which would have her presiding over cases throughout North Carolina. Due to state requirements, Wagoner must wait 90 days before she can start. She’s already counting down the minutes until August.

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