Kearns Davis’ Remarks at 15th Annual Criminal Justice Peter S. Gilchrist III & Wade M. Smith Award Dinner

Kearns, a white man with brown hair, wears a white shirt, red tie and black jacket. By Kearns Davis 

The NCBA Criminal Justice Section held the 15th Annual Criminal Justice Peter S. Gilchrist III & Wade M. Smith Awards Dinner in Raleigh on January 18, 2024. Kearns Davis, a partner at Brooks Pierce in Greensboro, and a former Chair of the Criminal Justice Section, was the recipient of the 2023 Wade M. Smith Award. The late Elizabeth “Beth” Dierauf, a longtime Assistant District Attorney for Henderson, Transylvania, Polk, Rutherford, and McDowell Counties, was named the recipient of the 2023 Peter S. Gilchrist III Award. Beth lost a long battle with cancer on November 11, 2023.

Kearns graciously shared his remarks from the dinner, which are posted in their entirety below:

I wish so much I could share this evening with Beth Dierauf. I never had the opportunity to work with Beth, but I’ve learned about her since this event was scheduled. She and I have worked with a lot of the same people, and our kids are about the same ages and have much in common. I feel almost like I knew her, and I wish I’d had that privilege. If Beth were here, I imagine she would feel what I feel tonight: a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to work with an amazing group of dedicated lawyers and judges in the criminal justice system; thankful that her life’s work has made a difference in her community and her state; and honored to spend this evening with people she admires and respects so much.

As I look around this room, I’ve worked with almost all of you in one way or another. I’ve shared a counsel table with some of you. I’ve been across the courtroom from some of you. I’ve argued in front of some of you. And I’ve argued with some of you.

In the criminal system, we operate at the margins, in the paradoxical place where a government built on the principle of protecting life, liberty, and property turns to trying to take them away. A free and functioning society depends on what we do. Victims depend on prosecutors to seek justice, and citizens depend on them to deter crimes that never happen, and that we never know we were protected from. Defendants depend on their lawyer to be the one person committed to standing by them — literally and figuratively — when the might and power of the government turn against them, making sure each person is treated as a human being and has an advocate.

There is a gravity to what we do, and a dignity, but it’s also messy and contentious. The stakes are high, and very personal for the people and families on both sides.

I could not be more grateful for this honor. To have this award, with Wade Smith’s name on it, is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. But I know the purpose of this dinner and these awards isn’t just to recognize one person from each side each year. It’s to bring the sides together. To celebrate all prosecutors and all defense lawyers. To honor each other, and what we share. And for each of us to recognize what all of us, including our courtroom opponents, mean to our society and our communities.

The world around us has a harder and harder time communicating about issues where people disagree. And I wonder if that makes what we’re doing here tonight even more important.

In the criminal bar, we know how to disagree. We know how to argue forcefully. But we also know how to listen carefully. And how to respect and appreciate each other despite our differences.

I wish I knew how to share those ideals with the rest of society. Unfortunately, I don’t. But I do believe the contentiousness of the public square makes it all the more important for those of us who work in the courts — criminal and civil — to remain committed to upholding those ideals.

I sometimes wonder if people are sincere when they say they are humbled by a recognition or award. But humility is exactly what I feel right now. It’s a privilege every day to be one of you, to be part of this bar, and to work with you on things that matter so much.

Thank you.