‘Cobra' known for kind ways, hard justice

Former state Supreme Court Justice John Webb – nicknamed the “smiling cobra” – died Thursday on his 82nd birthday in his hometown of Wilson.

Webb was elected an associate justice in 1986 and served until his retirement in 1998 at age 72. Before that, he was a judge on the state Court of Appeals for nine years and a Superior Court judge for six years.

Gov. Mike Easley on Friday praised Webb's service to the state. “He brought integrity to the judiciary, was one of the finest gentlemen, and he was an excellent jurist,” Easley said in a statement.

Webb, who had Parkinson's disease, had been at Britthaven of Wilson for about a year and half, said Christie Cameron, clerk of the state Supreme Court.

“He kept his good mind and sweet spirit, and just his body failed,” Cameron said.

Webb was a friend and ally of four-term former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. Hunt joined Webb's firm before he ran for political office. Shortly after becoming governor in 1977, Hunt appointed his old law partner to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

“John Webb was one of the great legal minds and one of the true classical spirits of North Carolina,” Hunt said.

“At the end of the day, one of the great experiences was to kick back and to talk politics, philosophy and history and everything else.”

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell said Webb was the best-read person he had ever met. “On almost any subject you could bring up, no matter how obscure, John would have an idea on it,” Mitchell said.

“He was a total gentleman and the most gentle man I have ever known,” Mitchell said. “I don't think I have ever heard him say a harsh word about anybody.”

After his appointment to a Superior Court judgeship in 1971, Webb held court throughout Eastern North Carolina, earning his “smiling cobra” nickname with courteous, yet hard justice.

“He could be just as gentle as he could be and smile at a defendant and say, ‘Yes, sir,' and almost apologize and then enter a tough sentence,” Cameron said.