By Russell Rawlings

John Connell just knew he had blown the interview. He was suffering from a cold, on medication, and unusually anxious.

“I felt I rushed it.”

That was nearly 30 years ago when he interviewed for the position of assistant clerk of court at the N.C. Court of Appeals. Not only did he get the job, but seven years later when the clerk’s position became open, he landed that job too.

The affable Connell retired Nov. 1, leaving behind a legacy of service and leadership that will permeate the Court of Appeals for years to come. Always quick with a smile and a self-effacing comeback, he covers his emotions well until the conversation turns to his co-workers.

“That is what I will miss the most—the people whom I work with in this office,” said Connell. “I really have so much love and respect for these people, and I will miss being around them on a daily basis.

“I will never be referred to as ‘honorable’ again.”

The feeling is mutual.

“John Connell, with his good humor, outgoing personality, and patient demeanor has welcomed lawyers and the public to the Court throughout his years of valued service,” said Chief Judge Linda McGee. “John has the ability to confidently and straightforwardly answer practical or complex questions about the rules of appellate procedure, and his assistance to lawyers benefits the operation of our Court daily.

“John has demonstrated enthusiasm for his leadership role and dedication to serving this Court, for which we are grateful.”

McGee is the fifth chief judge Connell has worked under, preceded in that regard by John Martin, Sid Eagles, Gerald
Arnold and the late Robert Alfred “Fred” Hedrick, who was serving as chief judge when Connell was hired.

“A classmate of mine from Carolina, Mark Finkelstein, was clerking for Judge Hedrick at the time,” Connell recalled.
“I wasn’t loving the practice of law, and he told me about the position that had been posted for the assistant clerk at the Court of Appeals, so I decided to throw my hat into the ring.”

Connell says that he never confirmed it, but that he believes the fact that his father had been Judge Earl Vaughn’s doctor helped his cause. Maybe so, but it’s safe to say Connell didn’t last three decades because of a family connection.

“The clerk serves at the court’s pleasure,” Connell said. “I have been lucky to have the type of people I have had around me. They made me look good.

“When an appeal is filed, we’re the first to touch it coming in the door and the last to touch it going out. We handle the court’s docket, and the rumors about the death of paper in court filings have been greatly exaggerated.”

Connell may make light of his contributions to the court, but the truth of the matter is he is an expert in his field and he will be sorely missed, as evidenced by the tributes that have been posted on Smith Moore Leatherwood’s North Carolina Appellate Practice Blog.

“As the long-time Clerk of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, Connell has been an invaluable resource on North Carolina appellate practice and procedure for close to 30 years,” writes fellow NCBA member Beth Scherer. “Still, Connell’s departure makes me a bit anxious. As evidenced by numerous blog posts, North Carolina’s written rules governing appellate practice and procedure are not always a picture of clarity.

“For decades (including my entire appellate career), Connell has served as a trusted “gap filler” for appellate practice and procedure, generously sharing his years of practical experience and knowledge with practitioners all across the state. I have become accustomed to calling him about some esoteric question or concern. I am sure I am not the only person who will miss having ready access to his wisdom, insight, and incomparable wit.”

Perhaps the term “gap filler” best describes the secret to Connell’s success. It’s one thing to know the complicated rules, but the key is realizing and appreciating the fact that everyone else doesn’t.

“I have spent a fair amount of time around the rules of appellate practice,” Connell said. “They are not the easiest rules. For a lot of attorneys, it is their first time, or they do it so infrequently that it might as well be.”

To help bridge this gap, Connell has made himself highly accessible and available to members of the bar, in part through his service on the North Carolina Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Committee.

“It makes life easier for the practitioner and it helps the court, which leads to a better product,” Connell said. “It is easier to address these technical matters up front than to clean them up after the error has occurred.

“I have enormous respect for attorneys,” Connell said. “They are the ones who are living with these cases. When I go home, I don’t carry the cases with me, which is incredibly fortunate.”

A native of Macon, Ga., Connell is a 1981 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and 1985 graduate of the UNC School of Law. His wife, Michelle Connell, is also an attorney who practices with Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton.

“We met at the Bar Center at an Appellate Rules Committee meeting,” Connell said. “She learned the hard way that I have absolutely no pull with the Court of Appeals.”

In discussing his departure, Connell recalled the time the News & Observer ran a story about the significant salary increases that the General Assembly had awarded to Connell and his counterpart at the Supreme Court.

“The fact is, and this was born out,” Connell said, “that a study had been done which showed we were the lowest paid appellate clerks in the Southeast, and that had been brought to the attention of the legislature.

“The next day after the story ran, Judge (Eddie) Greene comes in and says, ‘I guess now we can afford to hire a real clerk.’”

Whatever the increase was, John Connell was worth every penny.  NCL