Becton to represent state's lawyers

Former judge has colleagues' respect

Staff WriterJune 21, 2008 

  • BORN: Morehead City

    NOW LIVES: Durham

    FAMILY: Wife, Brenda, a retired lawyer and former administrative law judge; three grown children: Nicole, Kevin and Michelle.

    CAREER: Practices at the Raleigh firm of Becton, Slifkin & Bell; has taught trial advocacy classes at UNC-Chapel Hill since 1976 and Duke Law School since 1980.

— Charles L. Becton, a Raleigh lawyer and former N.C. Court of Appeals judge, will have a homecoming of sorts when he takes over as N.C. Bar Association president at a ceremony tonight at the group's annual meeting in Atlantic Beach. It's just a few miles from his Morehead City birthplace.

Becton's career since leaving Eastern North Carolina in the 1960s has made him among the most respected lawyers in the state, his colleagues say.

"There's no one more dedicated to his clients than Bec is. There's nobody better prepared than Bec," said Richard Rosen, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who once worked under Becton. "He's the epitome of what a lawyer should be."

Since Becton graduated in 1969 from Duke Law School, where he was among a handful of black students, his career has taken him:

* Into courtrooms to defend civil rights activists.

* To South Africa, before and after that country's apartheid era.

* To the judge's bench he held for nine years on the N.C. Appeals Court before returning to his personal injury practice.

Becton, 64, will be the first black man to lead the organization of 13,500 lawyers. In 2003, Judge Allyson K. Duncan of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals became the first black woman to head the group.

Becton said he hopes to challenge negative views of lawyers. Many times, in legal battles, people hold grudges against the judges and lawyers, he said.

"Lawyers have no monopoly on this [unethical] conduct; you see this in every type of profession," Becton said. "It's everywhere, and all of us need to police our respective groups."

The N.C. Bar Association is a voluntary organization for the state's lawyers and not affiliated with the N.C. State Bar, the state agency in charge of licensing and regulating lawyers.

Becton spent his childhood with an aunt in Ayden after his mother went to New York City to work in factories and send money home. It was in Ayden that he decided he wanted to be a lawyer, after seeing an attorney arguing on television during the civil rights movement.

"By the time I got to college, it was pretty clear I didn't want to be a politician," he said. "You seem to have to compromise too much and therefore compromise principles."

Becton spent his undergraduate years at Howard University. He went next to Duke Law School, where he was accepted after paying an unannounced visit to the dean. By the time the two stopped talking, Becton was in.

After graduation, he threw himself into civil rights work. Becton said he found himself handling cases other lawyers wouldn't touch -- teachers fired from schools because of their political views or a civil rights activist arrested while picketing.

Becton said he plans to continue the work of Janet Ward Black, outgoing president of the association. Black started the "4All" campaign, which encouraged lawyers to donate their time.

(News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4622

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