N.C. courts were once the domain of white males. No longer

Henry E. Frye, the first African-American on the North Carolina Supreme Court, became its first Chief Justice in 1999.
Henry E. Frye, the first African-American on the North Carolina Supreme Court, became its first Chief Justice in 1999. Observer file photo

The oversized portrait of Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin looked down solemnly over the crowded courtroom at the Supreme Court of North Carolina. One can only imagine what Ruffin, a slaveholder, would have made over a celebration late last month honoring four former Justices of the Court and two sitting members. All were African-Americans and each was testimony to the changes the North Carolina judicial system has undergone.

For its first 164 years, the Court was the exclusive domain of white male Democrats. It was not until 1983, when Governor Jim Hunt appointed Henry Frye as the first African American to serve on our State’s highest court, that the race barrier was finally broken.

Bob Orr

Since that historic appointment, our State’s judiciary has demonstrated remarkable progress in becoming more representative of our population. Since only 97 individuals have ever served on our Supreme Court, the fact that six African-American justices – two of whom are currently serving on the seven member court – was indeed cause to celebrate.

The ceremony focused on the racial diversity of the Court and the long struggle for African-American lawyers to be given the opportunity for service in our judiciary. While certainly of great significance, diversity only partially recognizes the important contributions made by these individuals. I have served with three of those Justices – Henry Frye, who went on to become Chief Justice of the Court; Jim Wynn, now a federal judge for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals; and G.K. Butterfield, now a U.S. Congressman. I’ve also appeared in cases before the other three – retired Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, and current Justices Cheri Beasley and Michael Morgan. All have served with distinction during their time on the Court. Each has brought a wealth of experience, dedication and legal talent, and each has served seamlessly with the other Justices.

Simply put, they were and are valuable colleagues. The belated move to a more diverse Court was not only the right thing to do but has also served to increase the talent and experiences necessary for a strong Court.

Another important benefit of this diversity: It has produced an academically elite group of recent law school graduates who serve as research assistants for the appellate judges. In 1987, during my first year on the Court of Appeals, Judge Cliff Johnson from Charlotte told me his frustration that only African-American judges hired African-American research assistants. He was right. No white Justice on the Supreme Court had ever hired an African-American research assistant and only once had that happened at the Court of Appeals.

Thanks to Cliff’s admonishment, greater effort went into broadening the diversity of research assistants hired at the Court of Appeals and ultimately the Supreme Court. And what stars they were and have become. Ty Hands and Gary Henderson are now District Court Judges in Mecklenburg County. Shante Martin is Legal Counsel to the N.C. Community College System. Sharon Dent is a corporate counsel with Walmart. Kevin Howell is a Senior Vice President of the UNC System. Patrice Lewis, Karen Frasier Alston and many others have also gone on to outstanding careers.

For all these reasons, we should celebrate the importance of diversity in our judicial system and the need to expand it. The progress of the last 35 years has made for a stronger court system and also served to give the public greater confidence in the work of the courts.

Orr is a former N.C. Supreme Court justice. Email: greenponds.