After three decades on the bench, Sarah Parker soon will find herself in an unfamiliar role: No cases to hear, no opinions to write, no court system to run.
This week Parker, chief justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court for eight years, steps down after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 72 Saturday.
“There may be something to be said for statutory senility,” she says.
A former Charlotte lawyer, Parker will leave with a reputation as a respected if unassuming jurist who guided the court through choppy waters with a steady hand and even temperament.
“Sarah is a quintessential professional,” says Republican Bob Orr, a former associate justice. “She has a sense of the history and tradition of the court as well as the system. She’s been a good chief justice in difficult times.”
Gov. Pat McCrory named Associate Justice Mark Martin, 51, to succeed her. Martin is running against Ola Mae Lewis, a Superior Court judge from Brunswick County. Both are Republicans, though the November race is nonpartisan.
Parker, a Democrat, is stepping down after 21 years on the high court, where she heard 2,397 cases and wrote 153 opinions. In many ways it was a pioneering career.
She was one of a handful of women in law school. When she joined a Charlotte firm in 1969, she was the first woman in its century-old history. And for much of her judicial tenure, she was the only woman on either the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.
The winner of November’s contest will inherit what Parker leaves behind: a court system hit hard by budget cuts and one increasingly buffeted by partisan politics.
Budget cuts strain operations
The General Assembly’s final budget included $3.5 million in cuts to state courts, which the chief justice oversees. This hits a system that already has lost over 600 positions.
“This level of cut places a real strain on court operations and will require some difficult decisions to achieve,” Parker says. “We’re down really to bare bones.”
Budget pressures were a big part of Parker’s speech this summer to the North Carolina Bar Association in Wilmington. But Parker also spoke about a different kind of pressure.
Her speech came weeks after a group called Justice For All NC, funded by the Republican State Leadership Committee, spent $899,000 on TV ads against Justice Robin Hudson who, like all judges, runs in nonpartisan races.
In 2012, outside groups spent $2.3 million to re-elect incumbent Justice Paul Newby, far more than the $300,000 in outside money behind his opponent, Sam Ervin IV.
“(I)f people perceive that our courts are for sale, they will lose confidence in the ability of courts to be fair and impartial,” she told the bar. “…We must have judges committed to the rule of law … without regard to politics, special interests or personal agenda.”
Former Chief Justice James Exum called it “one of her finest hours.”
“She was keen to call the attention of lawyers to the ever-increasing politicization of our judiciary,” he says, “and how concerned she was and they should be.”
Parker says public financing for nonpartisan judicial races helped relieve the pressure of reliance on outside money. Last year the General Assembly ended public financing.
“The danger is people will begin to believe that seats on the high court are for sale to the highest bidder,” says Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina and advocate of public financing. “And, unfortunately, some wealthy special interests seem happy to see that happen.”
From Garinger to high court
Orr once called Parker “one of the more conservative justices that has been on the court in a good long while.” But she has generally avoided partisan politics.
“I’ve never heard a bad word about her … because she’s been very professional … and just trying to keep the court out of politics and just doing its job,” says Michael Gerhardt, who teaches at the University of North Carolina law school. “Sometimes people want to draw the court into political conflicts.”
A Charlotte native, Parker was in Garinger High’s first graduating class in 1960. After two years at Raleigh’s Meredith College, she transferred to UNC Chapel Hill, a school women generally could not attend until their junior year.
After graduation she joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English in Ankara, Turkey. It was there she firmed up her decision to go into law. She returned to Chapel Hill for law school.
Gov. Jim Hunt appointed her to the Court of Appeals in 1984. She was first elected to the Supreme Court in 1992 (“the first Garinger graduate to become a member of the Supreme Court,” she once joked).
Now Parker is looking forward to travel and free time. She’s not sure whether she’ll return to her Eastover home in Charlotte or move permanently to Raleigh.
“There’s a touch of sadness as you leave because of the association with my colleagues on the court,” she says. “The one thing that’s reassuring is you know the institution is larger than any of us.…
“It’s been a great journey. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been rewarding and satisfying and I’m deeply grateful to the people of North Carolina for giving me the honor of being the chief justice. I still pinch myself to believe it’s real.”