Phil Howerton combined justice, mercy as NC judge

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Judge Phil Howerton, photographed in 1998, when he presided over a drug court that offered offenders a second chance to clean-up their act.

Observer file photo

Phil Howerton, a longtime Mecklenburg County judge who tempered justice with mercy and used his own trials with addiction to help others overcome theirs, died Friday of pneumonia related to Parkinson’s disease, his family said. He was 84.

A former Marine, Howerton was a lawyer, prosecutor, public defender and judge with degrees from Davidson, Princeton and the University of Virginia. He had eclectic interests. He was an unpublished novelist, a voracious reader, an expert fly fisherman and a woodworker who crafted elegant reproductions of antique furniture.

“He was really a Renaissance man,” said longtime friend Ed Hinson.

But it was in the courtroom, particularly on the bench, where he found his calling. It was what one colleague called his “happy place.” It was where he could not only bring justice to those who deserved it but help to those who needed it.

“He wasn’t one of those ‘lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key’ individuals,” said his wife Mary, a former executive director of the county bar. “Mercy was about everything he did.”

In the mid-1990s, Howerton started the the county’s first drug court. With so many defendants suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, the idea was to get them treatment and follow through. In addition to regular checks with a probation officer, defendants had to attend weekly meetings of Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous.

“Everybody connected with this program is trying to do one thing, and that’s help you recover,” he told one crack-dependent defendant in 1995.

To those in his courtroom, Howerton was candid about his own addiction. He took his last drink in 1988.

“He was himself in recovery and that always seems to make people better at dealing with folks with drug and alcohol problems,” said former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, who helped take the idea statewide. “He was just tireless in promoting drug treatment courts and running his own. And I know he saved many people.

“He almost single-handedly, by force of will, kept his (court) going and got support for others.”

Prosecution and defense

Howerton was born and raised in Charlotte. After graduating from Davidson in 1958, he and four college buddies went to the beach for an alcohol-laced, post-graduate celebration. While there, Howerton came up with the idea that the group should drive back to Charlotte and enlist in the Marine Corps.

Howerton, by then sobered up, was the only one who passed the physical. His father was aghast. But Howerton always said his three years in uniform — he left as a captain — “was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Mary Howerton said. “He finally grew up.”

Then it was off to Princeton for a masters in public policy and law school at Virginia.

After returning to Charlotte in the early ‘60s, he joined Moore & Van Allen before going into solo practice. At one point he took a break, moved to Montana for a few months and wrote a novel. “Crazy Mountain Connection,” was never published though it won praise from a former Observer editor who happened to be a family friend.

Leaving private practice, Howerton went to the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s office, were he prosecuted defendants, particularly in capital cases. After a while, he switched to the public defender’s office where he defended the kinds of people whose cases he’d prosecuted.

“A good debater can argue both sides of an issue equally well, same with lawyers,” said former Judge Richard Boner, a friend and colleague. “A good lawyer can represent defendants in a criminal case and then turn right around and be able to prosecute defendants.”

And Howerton was a good lawyer, the kind others tried to model themselves after.

George Laughrun started his career working alongside Howerton at the district attorney’s office.

“I learned more from that man in 10 months than I did in 40 years of being a lawyer,” Laughrun recalled. “How to try a case. How to treat people. How to pick a jury. How to cross-examine witnesses.”

Sometimes, when Laughrun finished a case of his own, he’d go into another courtroom to watch Howerton at work.

“I’d go up and watch Phil try jury cases,” Laughrun said. ”Watching him just try cases was an education.”

At home on the bench

In 1991, Howerton was appointed to the district court bench by then-Gov. Jim Martin. It was as a judge that he found a home.

“Phil (was) trying to figure out where he fit in the legal community, and he found it on the bench,” said Mary Howerton. “He loved being in the courtroom and being with the people in the court.”

The drug treatment court, which won an award from the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, measured its success in recidivism rates. A study by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts once found that just 13 percent of those who’d gone through the court in Mecklenburg were re-arrested, compared with a statewide rate of 47 percent for addicts who didn’t go through the treatment courts.

In 2004 the Observer reported that Howerton was one of three Mecklenburg judges who had been convicting less than half the drunk driving suspects tried in their courtrooms. Then-DA Peter Gilchrist criticized Howerton’s record on drunk driving convictions.

But Howerton scoffed at suggestions that he was too lenient.

“I’ve never considered myself to be a hanging judge,” he once told a reporter. “But I’m not a soft judge on those who I think deserved punishment.”

Howerton served as a judge for 16 years until reaching the mandatory retirement age in 2008. After a couple years in practice at James, McElroy & Diehl, he returned to the bench as an emergency judge.

Howerton never took himself too seriously. He smoked packs of Pall Malls, sometimes dropping the ashes in his coat pocket. Friends recall his wit, intelligence and compassion.

“It helps you to be a judge if you’ve been in trouble at least once in your life,” he once told a reporter. “You have to keep in mind that nobody’s perfect.”

In the mid-1990s, a woman named Valerie came through Howerton’s treatment court. She was a 32-year-old addict who’d sold sex for drugs. Once homeless and broke, she found herself with a job, a safe place to stay and months of sobriety.

“Most judges would have just thrown me in jail and never thought twice about it,” she told a reporter. “But Judge Howerton stood by me. He gave me a chance. . . . Judge Howerton has changed my life.”

Staff Writer Michael Gordon contributed.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.

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