Longtime chief district court judge had civil rights background

Longtime Chief District Court Judge James Lanning, who started or helped start a long list of public initiatives in more than two decades on the bench, died Thursday of pneumonia. He was 75.

His legacy includes Mecklenburg County’s domestic violence courts, environmental court, drug treatment programs, custody mediation and child support guidelines. But his family is still learning all the ways he helped people.

“If he were out doing good things for other people, helping them, he’d come home and you would say ‘Oh, Dad, where were you?’” his son Will Lanning said.

“And he’d say ‘Oh, well, I was meeting a friend.’”

Lanning’s family said he believed working to help others was just part of a decent person’s life, not something worthy of recognition or praise.

His passion for social justice began during World War II, when he was a small child. His father was a prisoner of war in Japan for most of the war, so Lanning and his mother lived in public housing in Pensacola, FL.

He would see people digging through trash for food and ask his mother why.

Lanning never forgot the poverty he witnessed in Florida. He went to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated as President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty programs were launching.

“It just really became clear to him that poverty, social justice and law were his path,” Kevin Davis, Lanning’s wife of 43 years, said.

Ken Schorr, executive director of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, said Lanning was part of the first group of staff attorneys at the Legal Aid Society of Mecklenburg County when it opened in Sept. 1967.

After a year with Legal Aid, Lanning partnered with Julius Chambers, Adam Stein and James Ferguson to open the first integrated law firm in North Carolina.

“When Mom met him, he was litigating school desegregation cases all around the state,” Josh Lanning said.

Mel Watt joined the firm in February 1971, the same month its office was destroyed by arson. “We were all living, kind of, on the frontier of the civil rights movement,” said Watt, a former U.S. Congressman, now director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

In 1970, Chambers argued Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court agreed busing should be allowed to achieve desegregation in a landmark 9-0 decision in June 1971.

Two years later, Lanning was elected District Court Judge. In his long tenure on the bench, he treated everyone who entered his courtroom with dignity and respect, Watt said.

He wouldn’t tolerate unfairness, his family said.

A state statute required judges to make people convicted of drug offenses pay a lab fee for blood tests that might have led to their convictions.

“My dad thought that was really unfair, because the vast majority of people are socioeconomically disadvantaged already, so adding on a $50 lab fee was just dumb in his eyes,” Josh Lanning said.

So Lanning wouldn’t demand the lab fee. But a prosecutor complained.

“Finally Dad said, ‘Well, does the statute say how much I have to award?’ and she said no, and he said, ‘All right, I’ll award a lab fee of one dollar.’”

Lanning served as Chief District Court Judge for Mecklenburg County from 1982 until Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to the Superior Court in 1998.

He retired shortly thereafter and developed a love for travel, which continued even after he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis three and a half years ago.

His family has photos of Lanning riding a donkey with his oxygen tank so that he could reach a village, inaccessible by car, in the Moroccan mountains. Before he died, he and Davis were discussing a trip to Burma.

Lanning is survived by four children and his wife of 43 years, Kevin Davis. His sixth grandchild, Mason, was born July 3.

His funeral will be at Myers Park Baptist Church. The family has not yet determined a date.

Wester: 704-358-5169