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Chief justices discuss ethics and judicial power at Elon Law forum

Three former chief justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court spoke with first-year Elon Law students on January 14 about their careers, the qualities they value in lawyers, judicial power, and trends in North Carolina law, as part of the law school's winter-term course, Lawyering, Leadership, and Professionalism.

From left, former N.C. Supreme Court chief justices Jim Exum, Rhoda Bryan Billings, and Henry Frye.

The presentations by Rhoda Bryan Billings, Jim Exum, and Henry Frye, three of North Carolina’s most distinguished lawyers, took place at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, just blocks from Elon Law, after law students completed tours at the museum.

Introducing the panel, Roland Smith, Skeens-Watson Visiting Professor of Leadership at Elon Law and a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, noted that Billings, Exum, and Frye were mentioned repeatedly in a statewide survey he conducted asking lawyers who they considered most influential in the profession. Elon Law’s national moot court competition, announced in 2010, is named in honor of Billings, Exum and Frye, each of whom is a member of the law school’s national advisory board.


Organized in a question and answer format, the panel began with an inquiry about each jurist’s choice to attend law school and path to chief justice of the state’s highest court.

Noting that his father had been a farmer and that his family had no lawyers before him, Justice Frye described what drew him to law after majoring in biological science, with a double minor in chemistry and air science, in college.

Henry E. Frye

“I thought about being a scientist, a dentist, a veterinarian, something in the scientific area, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Frye said. “I ended up in the air force, and I won’t go into all of that except to say that I had a very good experience with a lawyer there who spent his free time teaching English, reading, and things of that nature to people who were in the stockade … That sort of changed my attitude just a little bit about lawyers.”

“I talked to an older lawyer, who I knew very well, named Kenneth Lee, who is still here in Greensboro, and he said, why don’t you go to law school,” Frye continued. “We had a long discussion about the role of lawyers and how they could make a difference in the world.”

Click here for details about Frye’s career, together with brief biographies of Billings and Exum.


James G. Exum, Jr.

Asked how they decided cases when their personal views differed with the law, Exum, who serves as Distinguished Jurist-in-Residence at Elon Law, said, “judges take great refuge in the law.”

“One of the great strengths of countries like ours is that we don’t feel like we can decide disputes between litigants on the basis of a person’s personal beliefs,” Exum said. “We would rather rely on what the law says … because justice has its own moral attributes and among those are consistency, predictability, and objectivity.”

Billings added that judges should use discretion in applying the power of the judicial branch to declare laws unconstitutional.

Rhoda Bryan Billings

“We are a nation in which our government is of the people, and that means that our elected representatives determine what the values of society are, and the only time that the elected representatives, the legislatures, should be overruled by the court is when there is a higher authority, and that higher authority is the Constitution,” Billings said.

“The Constitution, in the ways that it limits the legislature, is anti-majoritarean,” Billings continued. “The courts have to be very careful that they don’t use that higher authority of the Constitution to overturn the decisions of those reflections of the values of the people being involved in legislation except under the circumstances that it was intended or should be.”


When asked what qualities they most respect in lawyers, Exum emphasized integrity, reliability, and trustworthiness. Billings said that civility, in addition to integrity, was paramount.

“The adversarial system works very well if people can take positions opposite each other, analyze them fairly, intelligently, making points to the decision maker, the judge, that persuades one way or the other that this is the proper result,” Billings said. “Once an advocate steps over the line and starts getting disagreeable, gets personal, it hurts the system. I can't overemphasize how important it is for the profession to get away from this tendency, particularly in litigation, to be uncivil.”

“It is a part of integrity to give your client the best representation that you can give," Frye added. "In other words you fight for your client.”

Other points of conversation in the chief justices’ 90 minute forum with law students included tort reform in North Carolina, workers compensation in the state, particularly related to cotton mill workers, and the state’s system for selecting judges through elections.

Click here for more details about the Elon Law’s first-year leadership course.



Philip Craft,
2/22/2011 4:45 PM