On Friday morning, Caroline Starr walked into her office, turned on the light and sat down. She sat there thinking. And then, for a moment, she smiled.
As mayors and council members have come and gone, she’s still here, 30 years now, working in the city’s court system. At times, it’s been good, at times it’s been bad and even other times, just plain ugly.
“I’m still here,” she says. “And that’s what counts.”
She came to work for the city on Aug. 8, 1990, when Bill White was the judge and Jenifer Holt was a prosecutor. Today, White is retired, and Holt will retire in January after serving more than 24 years as a circuit judge.
Starr came because she needed a change. She was 21, married for three years, and wanted some stability and retirement. Times were a bit simpler then before computers, fax machines and iPhones.
“I started out with index cards and a typewriter,” said Starr. “I had to hand type everything. It would take me three days to type a warrant list by hand.”
Starr grew to love her job as a court magistrate, working for court clerk Clara Harding at the time. She not only loved it but lived it. At the birth of her two daughters, Starr took three weeks of maternity leave.
“They had to have me for court,” she said.
In 2006, she became the court clerk. For the past 14 years, she has seen it all.
“I’ve had several judges,” Starr said. “Some good ones and some great ones.”
She says she loves her job, but said it can be difficult being a strong, opinionated female.
“I refuse to allow politics to interfere and micro-manage the municipal court,” said Starr.
At times, that has proven tough and brought on battles. But Starr has never backed down and she never plans to, she says.
“My main job is ensure defendants have a fair trial and their rights are not violated,” said Starr. “My job is also to protect the city from liability.”
She said her job is to also make the judge’s job easier. She’s a merit employee of the city, not appointed. Starr has no doubt that’s what has kept her in her job all these years. That and the fact she does her job. It hasn’t been easy, though. She says she’s covered in scars and marks over the years.
“You learn to pick and choose your battles wisely,” said Starr.
In 2012, at Christmas, she was suspended for three weeks without pay amid a state investigation into missing city funds. A city employee was arrested for stealing more than $12,000 in city funds.
At that time, there were no policies or procedures regarding turning money into city hall. Ultimately, Starr won a personnel hearing and regained her three weeks of pay.
“I knew I didn’t violate anything,” she said. “I knew I had done nothing wrong.”
Starr said it was all political, like most things tend to be. And she’s been fighting ever since.
“I don’t allow politics in this office,” she said. “We don’t even talk about politics. We are here to do our job.”
Starr said she won’t be backed down or bullied into leaving.
A year or so ago, they came after her again, bringing the Attorney General’s Office along. Again, she’s still standing.
“It’s ok, you can try,” she says. “At the end of the day, when the smoke clears, I am still here. Politics want to have a say, that’s when you will hear from me. I will buck.”
Still, she admits 2018 was a rough year.
“It just about got me down,” said Starr. “I just kept my head down and did my job. I just want to be left alone to do my job.”
Starr said her office is audited every year.
“And we balance to the penny,” she added.
Through the years, Starr says she’s seen it all in court. There’s so many faces, so many defendants and so many stories. She’s heard every story and every excuse.
“Nothing shocks you anymore,” said Starr.
A couple of years ago, she had security put in due to issues in the lobby during court days.
She has three magistrates, Denise Dawe, David Berry and Lynn Roberts.
“I couldn’t do the job without them,” said Starr.
Starr says she’s always took the job home, which she knows has affected her family.
She and Robert have been married 33 years and have known each other even longer.
“Robert doesn’t have a temper,” said Starr. “He’s just a nice guy, totally opposite of me. He knew what I was when he married me.”
They have two daughters: Ashley Cripps and her husband, Brandon, have four children; and Lydia Bunting and her husband, Lucas, are both in the Marines.
“I tried to instill in my daughters to make their own way,” said Starr. “Don’t depend on someone to support you. Be a strong, independent female.”
Starr loves her job. She says she’s matured over the years. Still, she admits she’s a brutally honest person.
“What you see is what you get,” said Starr.
Her message to candidates running for city office is to form your own opinion about city departments. She says go to the departments and meet employees.
She has no plans on retiring any time soon or running for office once she retires. She just wants to do her job.
“The court system will be done the right way,” said Starr. “And I just want to have some peace until I leave.”