Judge Shamieka Rhinehart: Seeking Justice and Mercy

Judge Shamieka Rhinehart

Superior Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart recently spoke to a group of debutants at a scholarship awards event held by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, the nation’s first historically black sorority. “I gave them the charge of being poised, prepared, open, impactful, spiritual, and elevational,” said Rhinehart. “I want to inspire and speak positively into people’s lives.”

Whether on the dais, on the bench, or on the streets of Durham as a community leader, Rhinehart puts forth a message of empowerment to women and people of color. “If I can do it, you can do it. It’s overcoming poverty and leading a successful life.”

Rhinehart grew up in the Little Raleigh section of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was a neighborhood of primarily retirees that deteriorated and became drug infested.

Her parents were hourly laborers who held multiple jobs, so they weren’t around after school. “My mom never had to ask me, ‘Did you do your homework?’ and she never had to stay on me, and that was a plus because she worked hard, and she was tired when she got home from work. I was a good student. I was naturally smart. I will tell you this – poverty did that to me.”

While in high school, Rhinehart and her younger brother moved in with her grandmother, who was on a fixed income. “I became the breadwinner, so that built a work ethic,” she said of her job bagging groceries at Piggly Wiggly. “I don’t know how not to work hard.”

The People’s Court

Rhinehart graduated from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in English and earned her Juris Doctor from North Carolina Central University School of Law. After two years in private practice, she was appointed as an assistant district attorney for Durham County.

“I saw individuals in my community who were getting into drugs, who were mentally ill. And, although I was a prosecutor, I saw my role as not just trying to get a conviction but trying to help people and to seek justice and mercy,” explained Rhinehart. “Oftentimes, I would craft my pleas to try to offer services to be court-ordered by the judge to help those people.”

Rhinehart was elected district court judge in 2016, where she handled criminal and civil cases. She called it the people’s court. “There were so many ways in which a citizen could appear in front of me. I could help them with respect to their families. So, to me, it was expanding a larger capacity to serve. And that’s all I want to do. Service is not about me. It’s about the people that are served.”

“We talk about the root causes of why people appear in front of judges, and I always try to listen to the story as to how this individual got here. I also have to consider the victim’s feelings because victims have rights as well, but most of what I see is poverty.”

Not a Preaching Judge

In February 2023, Rhinehart was appointed a superior court judge by Governor Roy Cooper. She is running unopposed for re-election later this year.

“I’m not a preaching judge. People don’t want to be preached at,” explained Rhinehart. “What I try to do is give them hope. They’ll apologize sometimes. I’m just like, ‘You don’t owe me an apology.’ They tell me they have kids. I say, ‘You got three good reasons and yourself to do better and not appear in front of me.’ Children are mirrors. They look at you. You be the best example for them.”

I asked Rhinehart, as I do whenever I interview a judge, how her life experiences impact her worldview when she is on the bench.

“First of all, I follow the law. As an African American woman, based on my experiences, I think I have a very empathetic but very broad way of looking at the world. I’m always willing to listen because I think that sometimes, as a black woman, I’m not always listened to. Through the experiences I have had based on classism and sexism I am more empathetic toward everyone who comes before me and not be bitter but be better.”

Dignity and Respect

Rhinehart speaks to a lot of women’s groups about female empowerment. “I want to create as many women leaders as we can, and I think we need to do that by example. I remember supporters bringing their children to my first swearing-in as a judge. I get chills because they wanna see leadership that looks like them.”

“You want a child to see you on their turf, in their community, in a robe talking about, ‘hey don’t be in trouble, you could be a judge, you gotta go to school’ versus them coming in your territory in the courtroom after they have been petitioned for stealing or doing something. That’s something that I take seriously.”

Rhinehart is very visible in the community. She is active with the Durham County Bar Association and is an executive board member of the Alpha Zeta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha in Durham, which sponsors educational and leadership programs for black women. She speaks at events such as career fairs and at schools. “I never, ever, had a black female judge ever come to Nash County public schools. I didn’t know I was a possibility. But through exposure, I want people to see it’s attainable.”

“I don’t just think of my services being a judge on the bench. We all have a collective responsibility to educate the community about who we are as judges. If I could reach just one person, it’s life well served. So, I always keep those individuals I grew up around at the forefront of my service,” said Rhinehart.

“As a prosecutor, then as a district court judge, and now as a superior court judge, I will never forget those people. I can hold them accountable, but I can also treat them with dignity and respect.”

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