Several weeks ago, I expressed my sense of personal loss to the news media after the unexpected death of my friend and colleague, Judge Tom Jarrell. Now, recent revelations compel me to write again. The public disclosures surrounding the events that led to his demise have caused many in our community to express disbelief. I, too, feel the shock. But I hope that I will eventually be able to gauge my emotional response by viewing Tom’s tarnished reputation from a more enlightened perspective.
Like many popular and charismatic leaders, Tom possessed an outsized, complex personality. He was a man of action: forceful, persuasive and dedicated to making a positive impact on the lives of citizens in North Carolina. And yet, like all of us, he was imperfect. He may have suffered from personal demons and temptations that none of us were aware of. This judicial colossus, some will say, had feet of clay.
After the initial shock wears off, our natural reaction is to experience disillusionment, or even outrage and scorn. These feelings are universal in human experience. The ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius recognized that “it is pleasant to watch from the safety of the land the great struggle of someone else in a turbulent sea.” Nineteenth-century German philosophers coined the term schadenfreude, which is akin to gloating over someone’s misfortune, with a hint of malice.
But just as we recognize and understand this emotion, we would do well to guard against it. Jesus said, in John 8:7, “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
Even if Judge Jarrell suffered an apparent fall from grace, it cannot be denied that he was an outstanding jurist and a visionary who, by his drive, leadership and enthusiasm, immeasurably improved our city, county and state. I prefer to look upon Tom’s legacy in the light of all the positive accomplishments in his life, rather than dwell on the disheartening aspects of his death. Tom was like the complex hero in a Shakespearean tragedy; he deserves our sympathy, rather than our scorn.
Likewise, Tom’s family desperately needs all the love and support that our community can give. Like so many families who have been victimized in the opioid scourge, they are devastated and bewildered. They need us to bestow upon them the better angels of our nature; we can rise to that task, if we only try.
Finally, we in the Guilford County judicial system will strive to build upon Judge Jarrell’s accomplishments and the positive impact he had in our community. We will build upon the many visionary programs he helped to create. From the staff, to the magistrates, to the District Court judges, to the judges of the Superior Court, we remain dedicated to dispensing justice in our county in an efficient, fair and impartial manner, just as he would want us to do.