Senior Associate Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby talking to students at Chase and East Rutherford high schools
Senior Associate Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby talking to students at Chase and East Rutherford high schools

From Daily Courier in Rutherford County

FOREST CITY - It's not every day you get a lesson in law from a supreme court justice.

But on Monday, students at Chase and East Rutherford high schools received just that.

Senior Associate Justice Paul M. Newby of the North Carolina Supreme Court stopped by both schools speaking for an hour at each about the rights granted by the Constitution, the judicial process, and the important things to know when interacting with law enforcement and the government.

“When I think about the sacrifices of the American Revolution – when I think about the various sacrifices throughout history for us to have the freedoms and liberties that we have ... I want to be sure that people understand how those freedoms and liberties tend to work,” Newby told the students in civics, government and politics, and history classes at East Rutherford High School (ERHS) who were gathered in the cafeteria to hear him speak.

Everything in our legal system is based around our fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property, he said. In most of history, those rights only belonged to those who were the strongest – who had the most power. That often meant the government. Everything changed for the United States, though, when Thomas Jefferson established in the Declaration of Independence that we are all endowed with unalienable rights and that the government exists to protect them.

“Well, what happens if people in government want more power?” he asked. “That's when government expands and your fundamental rights to life, liberty and property are threatened.”

Newby used the example of the limitations placed on what can be carried onto an airplane after 9-11 to explain the balance between individual freedom and governmental power.

“You take off your shoes, you take off anything metal, you take off your belt, you go through this x-ray machine,” he said. “It's very, very invasive. Government power: high; individual freedom: low. … We traded it off because of the public policy of protecting life. … But when the terrorist threat goes away … do we really think these people in airport security are going to give up their jobs? Of course not.”

He said that once government expands, it is difficult and unlikely for it to shrink again. He encouraged students to be careful when choosing how and when to ask the government to grow.

Interacting with the law

Transitioning to focus on individual rights, Newby made certain students understood the differences between two commonly confused legal terms: probable cause and reasonable suspicion.

“Probable cause is 'more likely than not,'” he said. “Reasonable suspicion is 'doggone it, an innocent person wouldn't do what that person just did.'”

Whether or not either is present, he said, law enforcement has the right to stop someone on the street and request to ask a few questions; and citizens have the right to respectfully decline. However, those who run away from the police when approached create reasonable suspicion. This gives officers the right to detain that person. Similarly, an officer may pull a car over if they are able to articulate a reasonable suspicion, which can include, among other things, a tip-off call, speeding, unsafe maneuvers, or odd behavior.

What's more, an officer always has the right to search someone for a weapon if there is reasonable suspicion. These searches – also known as “terry frisks” – are not meant to be as thorough as a drug search and allow only for the patting down of outer clothing, unless a weapon is felt.

In the early parts of his presentation, Newby received minimal responses from EHRS students. But by the end of the hour, the students had become invested and were eager to answer his questions and ask their own.

Their interest was especially apparent when he described a case against an 18-year-old who had been driving on the beach and flipped his vehicle. The driver's girlfriend – who was in the passenger's seat – drowned. Newby told the students that the young man had been charged with manslaughter, which requires intention in an act that put a person's life at risk and resulted in death, but not intention to actually cause death.

“You're the jury,” said Newby. “I'll tell you what the facts are as you ask the questions that you need ... to determine if this guy is a criminal or if he's a victim.”

“Was he intoxicated?” asked one student.

“The testimony is that he was 'crazy drunk,'” Newby replied.

“How did he flip?” asked another.

Areas of the beach had been washed out, making the ground un-level, he said.

“How fast was he going?” another student asked.

“The speed limit at the beach was 5 miles per hour; he was driving 55,” said Newby.

He also shared that the young man had been charged with driving while impaired on four separate occasions prior to the incident.

By show of hands, a large majority of students found the 18-year-old guilty. That's also what happened in the courtroom during the real case, Newby told the students. The young man served seven years in federal prison. He now travels to schools, talking about his mistake and urging students to do better.

Choosing to care

As Newby came to a close, he told the students that their choices matter and that they must choose to care about their rights and freedoms.

“Be informed,” he said. “Do a better job than your parents. Do a better job than my generation. … Read the Declaration. Read the Constitution. Read about these very important documents that are framing the experiment that we are a part of today – an experiment not just for our country but really as a model for the whole world. And help us make it better.”

The son of a school teacher and an hourly worker, Newby grew up in a small town between High Point and Greensboro. He attended public school, Duke University for undergrad, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for law school. He began his legal career in Asheville, eventually working at the US Attorney's office there.

In 2004, he ran for an open seat and was elected to the Supreme Court. He was elected to a second eight-year term in 2012 and is considering now whether to run again in 2020. A North Carolina statute limits the position of Supreme Court Justices to those under the age of 72, which means it would be his final term. He also teaches at Campbell Law School.

“I'm an example of how if you work hard and apply your God-given talents and abilities, you never know what will happen,” he said. “I'm very fortunate to get to do what I do.”

In addition to his engagements at Chase and ERHS, Newby spoke Monday at a Forest City Kiwanis meeting. These events were to commemorate the Supreme Court's 200th anniversary, which will occur next year. In celebration, the court is going “on the road,” with special sessions being held in Morganton, Hendersonville, and Asheville in May and Halifax, Greenville, and New Bern in the fall. Sessions were also recently held in Burke and Chowan Counties. These visits are being paired with civics education initiatives.

Court Categories: Supreme Court