N.C. Supreme Court justice discusses tension between regulation & liberty at Elon Law

Paul Newby, senior associate justice on the N.C. Supreme Court, spoke Monday to members of Elon Law's Federalist Society about how the U.S. Constitution protects fundamental rights and freedoms. 

Senior Associate Justice Paul Newby of the N.C. Supreme Court speaking at Elon Law on Monday, Feb. 25. 
During a visit to Elon Law on Monday, Senior Associate Justice Paul Newby said to understand the balance between government regulation and individual freedoms, look no further than the closest airport. 

Compare the security precautions in place today that greatly restrict where people can go in airports and what they can carry with them with more lax airport security protocols before the Sept. 11 attacks. Today, the government has imposed greater restrictions on individuals traveling by air with the goal of increasing security and safety overall, Newby noted. But in the process, as those regulations have grown, individual freedoms have declined. 

"When government power increase, individual freedoms decrease," Newby told members of Elon Law's Federalist Society, a nonpartisan conservative and libertarian group that advocates for freedom, federalism and judicial restraint, during his Feb. 25 visit to the school. "We need to make sure that we the people know what's going on there. The growth of governmental power is often very subtle and very incremental, but we have to be vigilant.

"We are very fortunate to get to be in a profession that does that, one where every day we get to defend and protect the fundamental rights of life, liberty and property," he said.

Newby visited the group to share how he approaches his role on the state's highest court, where he is charged with interpreting the state constitution and the U.S. Constitution. A former U.S. attorney and lawyer in private practice, Newby was first elected to the N.C. Supreme Court in 2004, and he has repeatedly been recognized for his work on the bench. He was honored by the N.C. Bar Association in 2011 with its Citizen Lawyer Award and in 2012 he received the John McNeill Smith Jr. Award in recognition of his work in the area of constitutional rights and responsibilities. 

Newby was quick to point out that North Carolina did not initially to ratify the U.S. Constitution because it did not contain the protections of personal freedoms that would come with the Bill of Rights. Newby noted that the state and federal constitutions do not create rights, but they can and do protect rights. 

How the Constitution is interpreted has changed, in Newby's view. "For the first 150 years or so, people believed that the words of the Constitution had meaning," he said. "It was treated like a contract. It's a contract among we the people in which we agree on some fundamental ideas."

However, shifts in judicial interpretation beginning in the 1940s and continuing for several decades led to ruling based not upon the clear meaning of the words in the Constitution. The Federalist Society, founded in 1982, has been active in pushing back against judicial activism and advocating for a stricter interpretation of Constitutional language, he said. 

"When the language is clear and unambiguous, then whether you like it or not, words should have meaning, and you should be able to understand how it should be applied," Newby said. "We can't practice our trade if words cease to have meaning."