From the McDowell News
Tuesday, a special plaque was unveiled and dedicated at the McDowell County Courthouse to honor five natives of Marion and the county who served as judges on the state’s highest courts.
“This is a remarkable group of individuals,” said guest speaker Associate Justice Sam J. “Jimmy” Ervin IV of the N.C. Supreme Court. “Not many counties in North Carolina can say they have such a group as this.”
The unveiling and dedication of the plaque was held as part of the ongoing 175th anniversary celebration of the founding of McDowell County and the city of Marion. During the past 100 years, McDowell has produced two N.C. Supreme Court justices, including a chief justice; three N.C. Court of Appeals judges, including a chief judge; and one Federal District Court judge. Of the five, three are deceased.
The event took place Tuesday in the Superior Courtroom with numerous county officials, city of Marion officials, lawyers and members of the McDowell County Bar Association present. Presiding Judge Alan Thornburg of the 28th Judicial District called the event to order. Commission Chairman David Walker welcomed all those present.
“You have represented McDowell County in a very distinguished manner,” said Walker of those being honored. “You have set the bar high.”
The special plaque honors:
• Chief Justice John Wallace Winborne, who many years practiced law in Marion and also served as a town alderman. He was the attorney for both McDowell County and the city of Marion. In 1937, he was appointed to be an associate justice with the N.C. Supreme Court and served in that role until 1956. That year, Winborne was chosen to be the chief justice of the state’s highest court and he held that office until his retirement in 1962. He authored more than 900 opinions during his time on the high court. He was a Mason and a founder of the Marion Lake Club. He died in 1966.
• Justice James Will Pless Jr., who for many years was a lawyer in Marion and was named as a solicitor for the 18th Judicial District. At that time, he was the youngest solicitor ever appointed in North Carolina. He was a Superior Court judge from 1934 to 1966. From 1966 to 1968, he was an associate justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. After his time on the high court, he returned to private practice in Marion. He was also president of the local Kiwanis Club and a founder of the Marion Lake Club. He was a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform and helped modernize the state’s juvenile justice program. He died in 1985.
• Judge Richard Cannon Erwin, who was appointed to the N.C. Court of Appeals in 1977 and a year later became the first African-American ever in the history of the state of North Carolina to be elected to statewide office. Erwin was also the first African-American to be appointed to a federal judicial position in the history of the state. Before his career as a judge, he practiced law in Winston-Salem and was a member of that city’s School Board. He then served on the N.C. School Board from 1971 to 1977. He was a member of the N.C. House of Representatives until he was appointed to the state Court of Appeals. He died in 2006.
• Judge Linda Mace McGee, who is now the chief judge of the N.C. Court of Appeals. In 1978, she started practicing law in Boone and later became the first woman president of the Watauga County Bar and the 24th Judicial District Bar. McGee was appointed to the state Court of Appeals in 1995. She was elected to eight-year terms in 1996, 2004 and 2014. In 2014, she was appointed to be the chief judge of the state appellate court by Chief Justice Sarah Parker. She is now one of the longest serving judges in the court’s history with a total of 23 years.
• Judge Robert Carl “Bob” Hunter, who worked as a practicing attorney in Marion and was the county attorney from 1970 until 1994. He served in the N.C. House of Representatives from 1980 to 1998 and played an important role in establishing Lake James State Park, the Highway Trust Fund, the N.C. Victims Bill of Rights and the N.C. Victims’ Compensation Fund. He was appointed in 1998 to the state Court of Appeals, and he was elected to an eight-year term on the court that same year. He was re-elected in 2006. Hunter announced in 2013 he would retire at the end of his term rather than seek re-election in 2014. He continues to stay active with civic organizations and events. He now is a justice of the Supreme Court of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, Mayor Steve Little issued a proclamation recognizing these five individuals for their time on the bench. Tuesday was proclaimed Justice J. Wallace Winborne Day and today was proclaimed Justice J. Will Pless Day. Thursday will be Judge Richard C. Erwin Day and Friday is Judge Robert C. Hunter Day. Saturday will be Judge Linda Mace McGee Day.
Chuck Abernathy, who is the chairman of the 175th anniversary celebration, said the homes of Pless and Winborne still stand in Marion and are a part of the historic homes bus tour.
Ervin read a proclamation from the N.C. Supreme Court before making his remarks.
On Tuesday, Larry Pless, the grandson of Justice Pless, and Winborne Chandler, the granddaughter of Justice Winborne, were there for the unveiling and dedication ceremony. As best that can be determined, no relatives of Judge Erwin were present.
McGee said she and the others who were being honored were fortunate to come from a close-knit community that supported them in their legal careers.
“You’re still supporting us and we very much appreciate it,” she said.
“This event is not about any one of the five judges,” said Hunter. “It’s about the collective history of the county. It’s been an honor and a pleasure.”
County officials said this plaque will placed inside the new third courtroom which is now under construction.