Tar Heel of the Week

Robert Orr, legal warrior, fights corporate welfare

Staff WriterDecember 12, 2010 

  • Born: Norfolk, Va., Oct. 11, 1946

    Family: Wife, Louise Wilson Orr; children, Kelly Ann Hollis of Raleigh, Robert Judson Orr of Chapel Hill, William Alexander Orr of Washington, Louise Flynn Orr of Raleigh and Elon University. Parents are both deceased. No siblings.

    Education: Hendersonville High School, 1964; UNC-Chapel Hill, Bachelor of Arts in radio-TV-motion pictures, class of 1968, awarded 1971; UNC-CH, JD, 1975

    Religious affiliation: Member of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Raleigh; Mission Committee member; former senior warden and Vestry member

    Career: U.S. Army, active duty June 1968-March 1971, discharged at rank E-5. WSOC-TV (Charlotte), cameraman/reporter, 1971; UNC-CH Department of Physical Therapy, audiovisuals 1971-1972; practiced law in Asheville, 1975-1986; appointed to N.C. Court of Appeals, 1986, 1988; elected to N.C. Court of Appeals, 1992;elected to N.C. Supreme Court, 1994, 2002; executive director, senior counsel, N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, 2004 to present

    Reading material: William Manchester’s “American Caesar,” “The Last Lion”; C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series; Theodore White’s “Making of a President” series; and Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” and Aubrey-Maturin series.

Robert Orr is now in his 15th year of waging war against corporate welfare. That's how Orr characterizes the widespread policy of state and local governments paying millions of dollars to businesses to encourage them to locate in this state.

A former N.C. Supreme Court justice, Orr quit the bench in 2004 with six years remaining in his elected term to dedicate himself to the mission of fighting taxpayer subsidies of corporate tax breaks, grants, executive relocation expenses and other perks. The state Supreme Court OK'd the practice in 1996 as a business-recruitment strategy, over Orr's dissenting vote.

As director of the nonprofit N.C. Institute on Constitutional Law, he is best known for his high-profile - but so far unsuccessful - suits to block the $260 million incentive package offered to Google and the $280 million sweetener offered to Dell for moving here and promising to create jobs.

Quashing corporate welfare may not be a typical rallying cry for a Republican, but Orr says this is a matter of preserving the integrity of the state Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for private gain.

On a personal level, Orr has sparred over the incentives issue with his son, a financial analyst with an MBA. The jurist-turned-advocate once chided the younger Orr as a "greedy businessman" for his support of stocking corporate treasuries with taxpayer money, asking his son incredulously, "Don't they teach ethics in business school?"

"I'm an opinionated guy," says Orr, 64. "I have also realized, the older I get, that changing things on the macro level is very difficult, if not impossible."

Measures of success

Orr attributes his motives to an underdog mindset, and he says success can't always be measured in courtroom victories but in drawing public attention to governmental misuse of power or some other social wrong.

His long-shot approach was evident in his unsuccessful run for governor two years ago, when he ended up near the bottom of the heap in the Republican primary. And it comes through in Orr's 13-year mentoring relationship with an African-American youth who comes from a troubled home.

At times, Orr has hit the political jackpot in spite of the odds - as in 1988, when the dark horse candidate became the first Republican to win a statewide judicial race in the 20th century, going on to win four judicial elections.

His law school chum and longtime fantasy baseball partner, John Mitchell, compares Orr to Charlie Brown, the existential stumblebum from the Peanuts comic strip whose string of defeats are really principled victories when viewed from a deeper perspective.

"He's pugnacious," Mitchell says. "He's not going to quit just because he loses round one. Or round two."

Jack Holtzman, staff attorney for the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, worked with Orr for two years when their respective organizations teamed up to challenge the constitutionality of the General Assembly's enactment of the state lottery.

"There are no airs about him," Holtzman says. "He has a certain folksy humor that hides a gravitas, a seriousness of purpose."

To date the state has paid out $98.9 million in incentives on more than $600 million awarded, contingent on job creation and investments by the companies receiving the money, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. But Orr says no one can say for sure how much the companies are receiving because the state figures don't include local matching grants, tax credits or rate discounts from electric utilities.

Orr's son says he admires his father's intellectual honesty on the incentives debate. But like many who condone incentives as a necessary evil, he says this state has no choice but to dole out financial sweeteners to attract businesses here as long as other states are doing it.

"My dad is not a business guy, he never worked in the business world," he says. "I basically tell him, 'You're pursuing a strategy of unilateral disarmament.'"

To the bench

Orr describes himself as a conventional guy who plays golf, works out in the gym and reads history, biography and mystery. Easygoing and affable, Orr rarely allows himself to get more casual than a necktie and a sport coat at the office, a rented space in an office building off Six Forks Road.

Orr grew up in Hendersonville, the only child of a textile shipping department manager and an elementary school teacher. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill law school in 1975, he practiced law in Asheville, handling personal injury cases, property disputes and other local legal matters.

In the early 1980s Orr ran a district office for Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Hendon, and in 1984 coordinated Republican Jim Martin's gubernatorial campaign in the western part of the state. Two years later, Gov. Martin appointed Orr to fill a vacancy on the N.C. Court of Appeals.

The vacancy expired several months later, and Orr lost the election in fall 1986, but Martin reappointed him to another vacancy on the same court, which set up Orr's first campaign victory in 1988. He ran for the N.C. Supreme Court in 1994 and was re-elected in 2002.

Orr's focus has been the constitutional limits on state and local governments. His views led him to write the dissent in a 1997 case in which residents challenged the substandard quality of public schools in poor counties.

Orr wrote that the state Constitution requires the General Assembly to provide equal education opportunities for all residents - including textbooks, facilities and teachers - even if local districts are unable or unwilling to fund quality schools.

In the same year he carved out his position on public education. Orr befriended Jerome Jeffries, a black student in the same kindergarten class at Conn Elementary School as Orr's daughter, Louise.

"I dropped Louise off one morning and saw Jerome crying in the hall," Orr said. "I asked him what happened, and he said 'I didn't have any breakfast.'"

The teacher explained to Orr that the child was in need of help, and Orr offered to help with reading and tutoring at the school. The relationship led to the two going out for a doughnut, then out for a round of miniature golf, and before long, regular lunch outings at Big Ed's in downtown, where the pair became regulars.

"If you go there now, you'd think Jerome is the governor with the high-fives and hugs he gets," Orr said.

Over the years, Orr has paid for Jeffries' camps, bought him a bicycle and Harry Potter books.

Jeffries comes from a broken home, staying at times with his sister, grandmother, father and mother, depending on who was available to take him in. Nearly two years ago Jeffries and two others were charged with robbing a pizza delivery man, a setback that led to a guilty plea and jail time for Jeffries.

The experience was a great disappointment to Orr. Still, he has stuck with Jeffries, recognizing the limitation of his powers over another person's life. Meanwhile, Jeffries dreams of becoming a video game designer some day.

"To me Bob is like family," Jeffries said. "I look at him as a grandfather-type figure. Not by his age, but by his wisdom."

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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