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Supreme Court's visit to county provide glimpse of legal proceedings

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North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley smiles after holding a series of court sessions at the Pitt County Courthouse on Tuesday.

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Settling debt as part of a divorce proceeding and questioning a witness facing criminal charges showed Pitt County residents the range of legal issues the North Carolina Supreme Court must decide.

More than 450 local attorneys, community leaders and high school students got to see one of the steps the state’s highest court takes to resolve these issues during a special session held on Tuesday in the Pitt County Courthouse.

As part of its bicentennial celebration, the state Supreme Court held three sessions in eastern North Carolina, starting in Halifax County on Monday, Greenville on Tuesday and concluding today in Craven County.

“It’s a good educational opportunity to get out in in the communities and give people who don’t normally get a chance to come to our court in Raleigh to understand how we operate and how the Supreme Court arguments are different from a trial they might see in their local courthouse,” said Associate Justice Robin Hudson, who has served on the Supreme Court since 2007.

What the public saw is that in one hour, two attorneys present their arguments and offer legal precedents illustrating why a lower court ruling should be upheld or overturned while answering questions from the justices.

The oral arguments are one part of the process. The seven justices, working with their law clerks, spend a lot of time reading attorney briefs and transcripts from the original trial and the Court of Appeals hearing.

“We do all that before the oral arguments so we are prepared to ask questions about anything we can’t figure out from the (materials) we’ve read,” Hudson said. “We spend hours and hours.”

Cases come to the Supreme Court because there is a need for clarity of the law involving a particular issue or issues, because existing law doesn’t speak to the issue or it is an area that is novel and hasn’t previously come before the court, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said.

“It’s important to be thinking about what are the policy considerations around that (issue) and how the legislature may be looking at the work we do and also how we interpret these cases,” Beasley said.

The case Crowell v. Crowell involved a divorcing couple who had accumulated “significant debt” during their 15-year marriage. The case was before the court because of a question involving the lower court’s order for paying off the wife’s share of the debt.

Greenville attorney Lisa Fitzpatrick, who has practiced family law for eight years, said it was exciting to hear a case involving an area of law that she practices.

“I was thinking about how I would be arguing or how I would interpret the law and what the justices are thinking,” Fitzpatrick said. “As (the justices) said, they are not all family law attorneys so (I was) thinking about how they would interpret the arguments.”

District Court judges hear family law and divorce cases, Fitzpatrick said. Nearly 20 active and retired superior court and district court judges from around the region attended the sessions.

The other case involved the state seeking to reverse a Court of Appeals ruling that Duval Lamont Bowman, a Winston-Salem man, should receive a new trial because the original judge limited the defense attorney’s cross-examination of a witness. Bowman had been convicted of murder.

About 130 students from Pitt County’s six public high schools and Arendell Parrott Academy, Greenville Christian Academy, Oakwood School and Christ Covenant attended this hearing.

“I’m glad this opportunity provided a learning and educational experience not only for the students who attended but members of the community who were able to participate,” said Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Marvin Blount III. “It’s not very often that the public has an opportunity to see our state’s highest court at work. Especially in our community.”

The General Assembly adopted special legislation allowing the court to meet outside Raleigh during it bicentennial celebration which will end in last 2020.

Bert Kemp, Pitt County’s public defender, said he was impressed with the preparation of the attorneys and how they handled themselves with hundreds of eyes watching and listening. 

Rick Croutharmel, the Raleigh attorney representing Bowman, said he was surprised by how many people were in the courtroom.

“When I got here I thought, ‘Oh my, this is a much bigger deal than I realized,’” he said. When he found out the Supreme Court was hearing the case outside Raleigh, Croutharmel said he was looking forward to the experience.

Croutharmel said the courtroom also was surprising.

“This is a magnificent courtroom. It’s better than anything we have in the Wake County Courthouse,” he said. “I think it rivals the Supreme Court’s courtroom in terms of how big and elegant it is.”

“I want to thank Pitt County government for its support of the event,” Blount said. “The efforts that were made by our county commissioners and county government employees were remarkable in the transformation of our courtroom.”

Following the two sessions and a luncheon, more than 130 area attorneys participated in a continuing legal education program sponsored by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism.

“The theme of the program is professionalism,” said Mel Wright, the commission’s executive director. “We are stressing that professionalism is important for lawyers, judges and law students.” Beasley and Blount spoke at the event, along with other attorneys, emphasizing the need for civility, character and respect.

On Monday night, the justices joined more than 100 members of the Pitt County Bar for a photograph that will be hung in the anteroom of the main courtroom.

“I think the local citizens realized the historic event of having the seven Supreme Court justices here,” Kemp said. “It will never happen again in Pitt County in my lifetime.”

Hudson said once the bicentennial celebration ends, she hopes the court will have future opportunities for travel.

“I think it benefits the public and benefits us to talk with people,” Hudson said. Beasley concurred.

“It’s been a phenomenal experience, the way we’ve been greeted and welcomed to communities across the state,” Beasley said.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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