From the Transylvania-Times
Many North Carolinians are not very knowledgeable about state government, especially the judicial branch. N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Newby and his peers are working to change that.
Newby was in Brevard and other parts of Western North Carolina last week to speak with student and civic groups, as well as journalists, to discuss attempts to provide basic civics education about the state judicial system.
Chief Justice Mark Martin designated Newby to take the lead in the civics education effort, partly because Newby has taught constitutional law at Campbell University and has written a book on the state constitution.
“One area of great challenge to the judiciary is, frankly, civics education,” said Newby. “Civics education is very important to me.”
Teaching is part of Newby’s lineage. His mother was a public school teacher for 30 years and he remembers helping his mother put up bulletin boards when he was a child.
The civics education outreach is being done in collaboration with the N.C. Supreme Court meeting in various parts of the state. The state constitution says the court should meet in Raleigh or any other designated place as long as it is approved by the legislature. And the General Assembly has allowed the court to meet outside Raleigh for three years.
Two weeks ago, the N.C. Supreme Court met in Hendersonville and Asheville. Newby said that Martin, a graduate of Western Carolina University, felt it was important to hold court in this region of the state.
Newby, who began his legal career working in Asheville for the Van Winkle law firm, agreed, noting that the Western part of the state often feels like a “second-class citizen.”
“Sadly, historically it has earned that feeling,” said Newby.
History is also another reason the judiciary is undertaking this civics education project.
“This is an important date. How can we celebrate 200 years?” he said.
One way is to continue to inform citizens about state government, in particular, the state judiciary.
Newby said North Carolinians need to think about the fundamental questions regarding government and the law.
He said that prior to the American Revolution, 99 percent of the world’s people were accustomed to being told what their rights were.
Then came the revolution and the Declaration of Independence, stating that people “are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Newby said it is the role of government to protect these inalienable rights and that often when government powers increase individual freedoms decrease.
Newby, a longtime member of the Boy Scouts, said that prior to Sept. 11, 2001, he was able to carry all sorts of knives on planes.
But after Sept. 11, 2001, he and other passengers are no longer able to carry knives on planes.
He said people need to think about the tradeoff between freedoms and security.
“Do we even think about the trade off?” asked Newby.
Newby said that while government can protect individual rights, it also can suppress individual rights. He said that after the Civil War blacks in North Carolina were elected to federal and state offices.
But in 1898, a coup in the eastern part of the state drove blacks from office and white supremacists came to rule.
The latter then levied a poll tax and administered literacy tests before anyone could vote, thus stripping many blacks of their right to vote.
“That is government oppression at its worst,” said Newby.
He said the courts often are called upon to determine if the government has overstepped its boundaries or not treated each group fairly.
“It often falls on the courts to draw that line,” he said.
Newby said, however, that it is not the role of the judiciary to make the laws.
That power resides with Congress and the General Assembly.
It is the role of the state judiciary to read state statutes and interpret the legal intent of state laws. It is not their job to consider the wisdom of public policy.
“We’re not the tip of the spear with regard to change. We’re the shaft of spear, just following where the head’s going,” he said.
Newby said that his greatest concern regarding the judiciary is the lack of public trust and confidence in the courts.
He said a nationwide survey revealed just 71 percent of Americans have faith in the courts.
While that confidence rating is much higher than Congress or the presidency, he said, “It ought to be much greater than that.”
He said while controversial and divided decisions get most of the publicity, the court rules unanimously 70 percent of the time.
“That’s a good thing,” said Newby, adding that the seven court members have a wide range of political philosophies.
When asked about the perception of partisan elections and receiving money from PACs as a possible reason why the public may be losing trust in the judiciary, Newby said it’s a valid concern.
He said, however, that many voters are not knowledgeable about judges.
He has had voters ask him how it feels to be a “lifetime appointee,” even though N.C. Supreme Court Judges are elected for eight-year terms.
He said people often vote for judges by ballot placement, name familiarity or some other random method.
Newby said making judicial races partisan does provide voters with one more piece of information because judges from each party typically have different judicial philosophies.
Newby said his philosophy aligns with that of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
Newby also said that he has always run on a non-partisan ballot, but that does mean voters cannot, and do not, check to see to which political party the judicial candidate belongs and that political parties support their own candidates even in non-partisan races.
He said he knows of no judge who has won a race without the support of his political party.
In regard to campaign contributions, Newby has said he has made it a practice not to know who contributes to his campaign.
He said his wife and campaign treasurer know, but he does not.
“It’s a no win game,” he said of the best way of selecting judges. “I wish I had answers. Every system is flawed.”
In addition to the eroding confidence in the judicial system, Newby also has other concerns about the legal profession.
“There are multiple challenges to our profession,” he said.
One challenge is the lack of access to legal advice for people of limited financial means.
“The gap has widened. We need folks to step in that gap and help,” he said, emphasizing that new lawyers are being encouraged to do more pro bono work.
Ironically, while lack of access for affordable legal advice has increased, there are a large percentage of law school graduates who will neither pass the bar exam nor ever practice law.
According to Newby, less than 30 percent of law school students pass the bar on the first attempt.
Of those who graduate from law school, 30 percent will have a career that is totally unrelated to law.
Others may work in a field related to law, but they will not work as lawyers.
“Are we mis-marketing law schools?” he asked.
Newby is also concerned that law has become less personal with more of a focus on business models and technology.
“Lawyers are supposed to be counselors,” said Newby. “We need to appreciate that the law is for everybody. It’s got to be user friendly.”
And like everyone else, lawyers are susceptible to drug abuse, although more so.
Newby said about a third of the attorneys under the age of 40 suffer from some type of addiction.
“It’s torn families asunder,” he said.
But his greatest concern is the declining trust in the legal system, and that if it continues to decline, then the fabric of American society is endangered.
“A foundational pillar is faith in our judicial system,” he said.