LUMBERTON — The judge with the reputation of telling deadbeat dads “you better bring your toothbrush” if they didn’t bring the money to pay child support will hang up his robe on Dec. 31.
District Court Judge Herbert Richardson Sr., 65, is the longest sitting judge in North Carolina. He has decided not to seek re-election and will retire after nearly 40 years on the bench.
“Richardson is an institution here. He was the best money collector I’ve seen,” District Attorney Johnson Britt said. “He is what you call a hanging judge. He will put you in jail.”
Belinda Hunt, a 20-year administrative assistant for the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Victims Unit, said she’s never sat in Richardson’s courtroom, but heard the reviews.
“He is an icon around here. He brings a little humor to the courtroom. It may not be funny to the defendant,” Hunt said. “He goes by the book even with humor.”
Richardson’s daughter, MaryJane Richardson, said her father is tough but fair and has a conversation with every defendant who stands before him to make them understand what they did wrong and to teach them lessons.
“From the outside perspective, it can be humorous, but from the actual person, it can be embarrassing,” MaryJane said. “He links pride to what they did wrong, especially teens and young people. Like a parent-child relationship, he does it with love.”
Richardson said a good judge must understand that “we are all God’s children,” just like his father taught him.
“Here is key. It’s easy to become a good judge in Robeson County if you understand that it’s all about the people and not about you,” he said. “Our job is to resolve conflict and make sure it doesn’t come back. You start helping people get better when you make them think of why they are here.”
Britt said Richardson’s popularity was always evident on Election Day.
“When people came out to vote he always leads the ticket. Not just for judge but the whole ticket. That says a lot,” Britt said. “He is the first of many things.”
Richardson’s first first was when he became the first black male to graduate from Northern Nash High School, in 1970, when the state was trying to shed its Jim Crow shackles.
“I lived in America, that had two Americas, ours and theirs,” he said.
He remembers working in the tobacco fields for 80 cents an hour — and realizing education provided his escape.
“I can’t do this for he rest of my life. My father said I need to use something else other than my hands,” Richardson said. “Why did God put this brain in my head if I don’t use it?”
Richardson cites television lawyer Perry Mason as his inspiration to study law.
He attended North Carolina Central University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 1974, followed by a law degree in 1976. In August the same year, he passed the bar exam.
But getting a job at a law firm was not easy for an African-American attorney in 1976, Richardson said. He started his own legal practice in Durham.
Two years later, Superior Court Judge Hamilton Hobgood III sent Richardson to Robeson County to interview for an assistant district attorney position. Richardson became the first African-American lawyer in the Robeson County District Attorney’s Office.
“That was my introduction to Robeson County. It was a bit of a culture shock. You’re living in a big city (Durham) and you’re working in a big city, then all of a sudden you to go to a rural environment,” Richardson said. “The District Attorney’s Office was extremely good to us. They helped us find a place to stay. They helped get everything arranged.”
Once he was settled in, his mission was to learn Robeson County’s landscape, people and dialects as well as the back of his hand, Richardson said.
“I went everywhere, all over the county,” he said. “I learned roads and communities, and I learned about 15 or 20 different geographical areas in this county. I learned different lingoes and languages, customs based on what part of the county you are in. And when people told me that I live on so-and-so road, my mind would tell me that I’ve been down that road.
“I could kind of recognize, and understand where they went to church and what school they attended, and kinda matched up in my mind, to the point that I could almost identify people from what area in the county by the accent they would use.”
When then Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Richardson judge in 1979, he became the first black judge to serve in Robeson County.
“I never thought it was a big deal. It never hit me that he was somebody important. He’s my dad,” MaryJane said. “In law school, that’s when I knew he held a powerful position, a position that affects people’s lives every day.”
Richardson’s wife, Patricia, said her husband’s position is not about power. It is a gift from God.
“He is accurate and thorough with each case, but always brings a human element into the courtroom. He rules with compassion for people,” she said.
Richardson became chief District Court judge in 1994.
In 2000, Richardson stepped down from that position but remained a District Court judge in Robeson County.
Among Richardson’s many awards is being a recipient of the Liberty Bell Award, one of the most prestigious awards given by the North Carolina Bar Association. It is presented to a person who has “strengthened the American system of freedom under law.”
Britt said one of the last things his late father, a former state senator, told him shortly before his death was that he had helped Richardson’s appointment to judgeship. He feels honored to have worked with him, Britt said.
“Not only have I had the opportunity to work with Richardson, I had the opportunity to hire his daughter,” Britt said.
The day Richardson retires will be “a sad day,” Britt said.
Richardson said he is proud of his success as a husband and a father to his two children, MaryJane and Herbert Jr.
But what he is most proud of his relationship with God.
“I am probably the most blessed fella you’ve ever seen to come out of nowhere,” he said. “Shouldn’t of made it, shouldn’t never got to where I got, shouldn’t of achieved to this point. But you gotta understand something, God has always got his hands on you, moving you places.”
Retirement from one job is just the beginning of a new job, Richardson said. But he was coy on what’s next.
“It is the most fun I am going to have in my life doing what I am going to be doing next, and I will be happy to disclose it to the public later,” he said.
Reach Annick Joseph by calling 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected] or Facebook Annick MultiMedia Journalist.