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Past, present North Carolina Black justices honored


Chief Justice Henry Frye Chief Justice Henry Frye
Count this week 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, during a special celebration at the Law and Justice Building in Raleigh, for their invaluable contributions to the state’s judicial history.

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.”

N.C. Associate Justice Cheri Beasley N.C. Associate Justice Cheri Beasley
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 State 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 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 Pres. Barack Obama. But years before, Judge Wynn briefly served on the N.C. Supreme Court from September 28 to November 3, 1998, after which he returned to the N.C. Court of Appeals from 1999 to 2010.

The Robersonville native holds degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Marquette University Law, and the University of Virginia School of Law. Afterwards, Wynn served in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps as a JAG officer, and later a military judge.

U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn Jr. U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James A. Wynn Jr.
Wynn later practiced law in Greenville, and was appointed to the N.C. Appellate Court in 1990 before briefly serving on the N.C. Supreme Court, and then returning to the state appellate court before being confirmed for the federal appellate bench.

Congressman G. K. Butterfield (D-12-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.

The Wilson native earned his law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1974, and years later, was elected a Resident Superior Court judge, presiding over criminal and civil cases in 46 counties.

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. The Florence, South Carolina native earned her law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law in 1979 and Master of Laws degree from Duke University School of Law in 2014.

Congressman G. K. Butterfield (D-12-NC) Congressman G. K. Butterfield (D-12-NC)
In the early 1980s, Timmons – Goodson served as a prosecutor in Fayetteville, and then a staff attorney for the Lumbee River Legal Services. In 1984, she became a District Court judge, serving four terms. In 1997, Judge Timmons-Goodson was appointed to the N.C. Court of Appeals, retiring in 2005.

In 2006, then Gov. Mike Easley appointed Timmons-Goodson to the N.C. Supreme Court to take the place of the retiring Justice Sarah Parker, becoming the first Black woman to ever serve. 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.

Justice Timmons-Goodson was then appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by Pres. Barack Obama in 2014.

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.

An alumna of Rutgers University and the University of Tennessee College of Law, Beasley was appointed as a Cumberland County District Court judge in 1999. She was elected twice again until her appointment to the Court of Appeals.

Justice Mike Morgan Justice Mike Morgan
Finally, Justice Mike Morgan had been a judge for over 26 years before being elected to the state Supreme Court. He served five years as a N.C. Administrative Law judge; ten years as a District Court judge; and had also served as a Superior Court judge since 2005.

Morgan is an alumnus of Duke University, having earned his law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law.

Pres. Barack Obama endorsed Judge Morgan for the state Supreme Court in 2016, saying, “Judge Morgan is a fair, experienced judge who is more than qualified…”

Morgan was the last African American to join the state’s high court, having been elected in November 2016. He is ever mindful of the important judicial lineage he maintains.

"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."

Irving Joyner, professor of law at N.C. 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,” Prof. Joyner says. “Those African Americans who have served on the Supreme Court made outstanding contributions to the state’s embracing of the “rule of law” and have elevated the North Carolina justice system to heights which it has never attained before.”