From the Daily Reflector by Ginger Livingston
The North Carolina Supreme Court is bringing the celebration of its bicentennial to eastern North Carolina when it holds sessions in Pitt, Craven and Halifax counties this fall.
On Oct. 2, Chief Justice Mark Martin — who began his judicial career in Pitt County — and the court’s six other justices will preside over oral arguments in two cases. The session will be held in Pitt County Courthouse, Superior Court courtroom No. 1, more commonly called the historic courtroom.
In mid-September one or two justices will visit Pitt County Schools and discuss with students how North Carolina’s judicial system operates, said Pitt County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Marvin Blount, who is leading the committee that is making preparations for the historic session.
“One of the goals of the chief justice and the justices of the Supreme Court is to use these sessions outside of Raleigh to educate the public and students about our judicial system and process,” Blount said.
The Halifax County session will be held on Oct. 1 in Halifax County Courthouse and the Craven County session will take place on Oct. 3 in New Bern City Hall.
The state’s Supreme Court was created by the General Assembly in 1818 and first met on Jan. 1, 1819.
Prior to the court’s founding, appeals of superior court cases were handled by a body called “the Court of Conference” which consisted of several superior court judges who reviewed appeals from their own courts.
The Supreme Court only met in Raleigh, initially, according to a history and opinion piece Martin wrote earlier this year.
Western North Carolina residents complained traveling to Raleigh was burdensome, so starting in 1847 the legislature ordered the court to hold monthly sessions in Morganton. That ended in 1861 when tensions leading up to the Civil War limited travel.
Since the Civil War, the court remained in Raleigh except for special sessions in Burke and Chowan counties.
The General Assembly passed legislation last year allowing the court to hold sessions of oral arguments outside Raleigh, Martin said. The first sessions were held in Morganton, Hendersonville and Asheville in May.
The special sessions will end in 2020. Martin said it is the court’s hope to convene sessions in at least 20 towns and cities.
“We hope that bringing the Supreme Court to communities throughout the state will give the people that we serve a better appreciation of the important role that courts have and the importance of the rule of law to our way of life, as North Carolinians and as Americans,” Martin said. “We want the people of North Carolina to understand the essential role of the judicial branch in our democracy.”
The justices will hear oral arguments for two cases at each location. Attorneys for the two sides get 30 minutes each to present their arguments and answer questions posed by the justices.
The first Pitt County session will be held at 9:30 a.m., followed by a 30 minute break. The second case will begin at 11 a.m.
The cases scheduled to be heard are Cooper v Berger et al. and State v Patty Meadows.
Cooper v Berger stems from legislation adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly shortly after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was elected in 2016. One statute changed the makeup and appointment process for the state elections board. The other statute said the state Senate had to approve the governor’s appointments to departments.
The Meadows cases involves the conviction and sentencing of a 72-year-old woman accused of selling oxycodone. The appeals brief claims Meadows received ineffective counsel, that the sentencing judge ignored an order issued by the trial judge and that her sentence was excessively long given her age and the fact that it was her first conviction.
Locations for the October sessions were recommended by a committee of the Supreme Court and then approved by the full court, Martin said.
The Craven County Courthouse is located in New Bern, which was the state’s first capital. Halifax County is were the Halifax Resolves, the nation’s first declaration of independence was signed April 12, 1776. Pitt County is between the two counties.
Pitt County residents visiting the courthouse will see painting and extra maintenance activities during the next month.
“We are going to be doing general maintenance at the courthouse to make sure it’s cleaned it up. We are trying to make the courthouse sparkle and shine for the event,” Pitt County Manager Scott Elliott said. “It’s been close to 20 years since we completed the last addition and while we do month-to-month maintenance, this will allow us to clean things up in general.”
The county’s building and grounds department also is undertaking a temporary renovation of the historic courtroom.
The bench must be altered to accommodate the court’s seven justices, Blount said. While the chief justice and two associate justices’ will sit behind the existing bench, two custom tables will be added, each extending at a 45-degree angle from the bench, to accommodate the four remaining associate justices, Blount said.
“I am excited for our county and the people who work at the courthouse to be able to share our beautiful courtroom with the justices of North Carolina Supreme Court,” Blount said.
The current courthouse is the fifth for Pitt County, Blount said. Construction began in 1910.
The first annex was added in 1965 to add courtrooms and office space. At that time the historic courtroom was converted to a smaller courtroom and office space.
In 1997, construction began on the annex that now houses the district attorney’s offices, the judicial offices and additional courtrooms.
The project went on to include the construction of an atrium linking the 1910 courthouse to the annex, renovation of the 1965 annex and restoring superior courtroom No. 1.
“As a Superior Court judge I’ve held court in more than 50 counties in state of North Carolina and I know from experience we have one of the most beautiful courtrooms in our state,” Blount said.
Joining Blount on the local outreach and planning committee are Resident Superior Court Judge Jeffrey B. Foster and District Court Judge Mario Perez, Pitt County Public Defender Bert Kemp and Bonita Raby, administrative assistant with the public defender’s office.
Along with installing the bench expansion, the county will be outfit the courtroom with audio and video in hopes of live streaming the session, Elliott said. If live streaming is not possible, the county hopes to videotape the session so it can be replayed in classes across Pitt County, he said.
Involving the county’s youth is Blount’s primary goal. Along with justices participating in programs at local high schools prior to the session, students from Pitt County’s public and private high schools, including Parrott Academy, as well as from Pitt Community College and East Carolina University, will be invited to attend one of the two sessions, Blount said.
The courtroom seats slightly more than 300 people, Blount said. Because of security requirements, people must have a ticket to attend one of the sessions. Details about how to obtain a ticket will be released later, he said.
“I was so excited to learn of the opportunity for Pitt County and our courthouse to host our state’s highest court,” said Blount, who was appointed to the bench in 2009 and who has served as senior resident judge since mid-2015.
“It was special for me personally because as a lawyer I had an opportunity to appear and argue a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Blount said. “Appearing before the Supreme Court is an experience few lawyers will every have.”