Top North Carolina leaders gathered Monday to praise the state Supreme Court on its bicentennial, highlighting what they called its endurance as being the place where citizens can seek equal justice under the law.
The current seven justices sat in its downtown Raleigh courtroom to convene a ceremonial session to observe the 200th anniversary of the state’s highest court.
“Over the past 200 years our state has revised its constitution multiple times, changed the way the members of the court are selected and witnessed extensive shifts in law and society,” Chief Justice Mark Martin said. “Yet this court has exhibited a remarkable staying power through it all.”
The General Assembly created the court in November 1818, essentially formalizing a court of appeals that had been staffed by Superior Court judges in the founding decades of the state. The court, initially comprised of a chief justice and two judges appointed by the legislature, met for the first time on Jan. 5, 1819, former Associate Justice Willis Whichard said during the ceremony.
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Since then, the court’s size grew, and during Reconstruction voters began electing justices to eight-year terms, which is the current practice today. All-male, all-white courts gave way in recent decades to many female and black jurists.
Susie Sharp was elected the first female chief justice in 1974, while Henry Frye became the first African-American chief justice in 1999. Anita Earls, a biracial woman, was sworn in as an associate justice last week.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who represented the state as attorney general for 16 years, said the court’s past rulings have expanded rights for many. The court, he added, can also protect people facing unlawful discrimination or when “government becomes too heavy-handed.”
“This has been and will continue to be … a place to seek justice,” he said.
The court can also step in when there are disagreements between branches of government, Cooper noted. He and the legislative branch have had many legal run-ins over the past two years, some of which have reached the high court.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and attorneys addressed the court. Ex-members of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, formed in the 1960s as an intermediate appeals court, also sat in the gallery.
Martin, the state’s 28th chief justice, said neither the past success nor the future survival of the court can be taken for granted. He urged citizens to put “principles over passions,” listen to each other and consider different perspectives in a civil manner.
“This institution represents an area where we can unite together in support of the rule of law, that our written constitution must be upheld and defended as the bedrock of all our liberties,” he said.
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