In recognition of the Supreme Court of North Carolina’s 200th birthday, Chief Justice Martin recently announced that the Court is going to put on a road show. North Carolinians living outside Raleigh soon will be able to watch the high court in action without having to travel far.
For as long as anyone now living can remember, the Supreme Court routinely has sat in Raleigh, but it was not always so. When established in 1819, the Supreme Court met in the state capitol. However, as North Carolina’s population grew, so did pressure to meet in a venue convenient to citizens in the western part of the State. In 1847, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring the Court to hold sessions in Burke County.
These summer sessions were generally welcomed by the justices because Morganton’s breezes in the western hills were far preferable to Raleigh’s oppressive heat. The Court heard nearly 500 cases during the Morganton sessions (with over two-thirds of them being argued by one or the other of the two Woodfin brothers who practiced in Asheville). However, Court tradition whispers that the opinions issued out of Morganton were viewed with some skepticism because, while there, the justices had relatively modest legal research facilities at their disposal, giving those opinions something of a yo-heave-ho tenor.
The trips to Morganton ended with the coming of the Civil War. In the years that followed, the Court seldom left Raleigh. However, there are a few happily-remembered exceptions in the recent past. In 2004, the Court travelled to Chowan County to hold sessions in the newly-renovated colonial courthouse in Edenton. The Court had such a good time, and received such a warm welcome, that it returned in 2013 and 2017. In 2016, the Court journeyed back to Morganton, where your scribe recalls joining his colleagues in a rousing chorus of “YMCA” (complete with gestures) as a bemused deputy sheriff drove the justices to Burke County’s historic courthouse.
These excursions from Raleigh were rare because each had to be approved individually by the General Assembly. In addition, the logistics of lining up a site that could handle the seven justices and portions of their staffs, as well as securing the cooperation of mayors, local law enforcement, the local bar, and other involved civic and governmental groups, required a heavy time commitment by the Chief Justice and other members of the Court.
Nevertheless, recognizing a good thing when it sees it, the Supreme Court will celebrate the bicentennial of its creation by rambling across the state with sessions in Morganton, Hendersonville, Asheville, Halifax, Greenville, and New Bern. More are promised. These sessions are a great opportunity for attorneys to see the Supreme Court in action. Moreover, given that most citizens think an appeal is just a trial do-over, these travelling sessions provide a splendid occasion to show our clients and friends how the appellate process really works. Keep an eye out for a time when the Court will be in a venue near you. Come and watch the fun.