Past, present black N.C. black justices honored

Chief Justice Henry Frye

Past, present black N.C. black justices honored
August 31
03:00 2017

Count today as a landmark in North Carolina history.

For the first time ever, all past and present African-American justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court are being honored for their invaluable contributions to the state’s  judicial history during a special celebration at the Law and Justice Building in Raleigh.

The event is part of the upcoming recognition of the 200th anniversary of the N.C. Supreme Court.

“On the cusp of those Court celebrations, it is timely that we reflect on the importance of diversity throughout the judiciary,” says N.C. Associate Justice Cheri Beasley, one of the black justices. “It’s important to remember and honor Chief Justice Henry Frye for courageously accepting the challenge to move justice forward for the people of the state when 34 years ago, he became the first African-American to serve on the state’s highest court. His elected service began as a legislator working to eradicate Jim Crow laws and culminated in his service as Chief Justice on the state’s highest Court.”

Justice Beasley continued, “As former and current members of the high court, Judge James A. Wynn Jr., Congressman G.K. Butterfield, Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, Justice Michael R. Morgan and I are beneficiaries of the noble course Chief Justice Frye charted. In times like these, when the state and the nation wrestle with issues often marred by racial tension, we must be mindful that it is important for the makeup of the courts to be reflective of the diverse makeup of the state’s people.”

Indeed, in the 200 years of the N.C. Supreme Court, there have only been six African-American members to sit on the high bench. Chief Justice Henry Frye was the first.

Frye retired from the practice of law in 2016. A native of Ellerbe in Richmond County and an alumnus of N.C. A&T University, Frye decided to become an attorney when he was denied the right to vote after being confronted with a “literacy test” as a young man fresh out of the military.

He graduated from UNC School of Law, later becoming one of the first blacks to be appointed as a federal prosecutor in the South.

It was 1968 when Frye was first elected to the N.C. House, and 1980 when he became a state senator. In 1983, he was appointed to the N.C. Supreme Court, and 16 years later, Justice Frye was appointed the first African-American to become chief justice. He served in that capacity for two years.

“You do the best you can because you want to set an example for others,” Chief Justice Frye once said.

U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn Jr. was appointed to the federal bench in 2010 by then President Barack Obama. But years before, Judge Wynn briefly served on the N.C. Supreme Court from Sept. 28 to Nov. 3, 1998, after which he returned to the N.C. Court of Appeals from 1999 to 2010.

U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-1-NC) was first elected in 2004, after serving a brief stint on the N.C. Supreme Court from 2001 to 2002. He returned to the Superior Court before being elected to Congress two years later.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Butterfield said today’s celebration really began with his suggestion that the six veteran justices just come together and take a picture. The next thing he knew, it evolved into a major ceremony.

“I’m excited,” the congressman said. “It’s my belief that the judicial system must be reflective of the community that it serves. You cannot have an all-white, and all-male judiciary. That is not democracy.”

Congressman Butterfield also paid tribute to Chief Justice Henry Frye, calling him “the greatest American.”

The first black woman ever to serve on the N.C. Supreme Court was Patricia Timmons-Goodson, from February 2006 to December 2012. She was elected to continue on the high court in November 2006, stepping down in December 2012 so that then Gov. Beverly Perdue could appoint state Court of Appeals Judge Cheri Beasley to the seat.

Before being appointed to the N.C. Supreme Court, Judge Beasley was elected to the state Court of Appeals in 2008, becoming the first African-American woman to win a statewide office without being appointed first.  She won a full eight-year term to the Supreme Court in 2014.

Finally, Justice Mike Morgan had been a judge for over 26 years before being elected to the state Supreme Court in 2016.

“This salute to those of us who have been fortunate to serve on the Supreme Court of North Carolina is a tremendous, fulfilling experience,” the New Bern native said. “I’m humbled to be associated with this strong legacy of African-American justices on our state’s highest court and to be recognized with my judicial colleagues in this wonderful way.  I am a great admirer of all of them and am thrilled to share this celebration of our service with them.”

Winston-Salem attorney Eric Ellison says having these six servants of justice on the highest bench in the state has everlasting meaning.

“To honor our distinguished African American Supreme Court justices is long overdue,” Ellison, who is also chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party, said. “I personally know that each of the honorees are exemplary public servants and at the top of the legal profession. It is significant to honor them because our judicial system serves a diverse population and likewise, we need a diverse body of judges to preside over people’s affairs. Only when our judges, juries, clerks, and police officers reflect the community they serve, do we grow closer to liberty and justice for all.”

Irving Joyner, professor of law at NC Central University’s School of Law, says the fine tradition of blacks serving on the N.C. Supreme Court is being keenly upheld.

“Their presence on the Supreme Court bench gives us optimism that our legal system will deliver the caliber and level of justice to which we are entitled,” Professor Joyner says.

“It is now up to us to continue the aggressive fight for a more diverse and progressive court system at all levels,” Joyner continued.

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Cash Michaels

Cash Michaels

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