Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson to resign from NC Supreme Court

Timmons-Goodson

acurliss@newsobserver.comNovember 28, 2012 

  • Whom will Perdue name? The news of an opening on the state Supreme Court set off rounds of chatter in political and legal circles Wednesday about who will get the coveted appointment from Gov. Bev Perdue. Whoever is selected would have to stand for election in 2014 to keep the position. Perdue has not commented on how she will make the pick, but much of the speculation Wednesday focused on Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson’s status as the only African-American on the highest court, which is currently made up of a 4-3 female majority. Perdue has “tried to move women and minorities forward in state government, and it would cut against the grain for her to do otherwise,” said Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice now in private practice. Some names being mentioned: • Cheri Beasley, who was elected to the state Court of Appeals in 2008. Like Timmons-Goodson, she is African-American. Beasley’s name came up repeatedly as the leading choice Wednesday. She is from Fayetteville. • Sam Ervin IV, a member of the state Court of Appeals who was just defeated in a close race for a Supreme Court seat against incumbent Paul Newby. • Wanda Bryant, also African-American and a member of the state Court of Appeals. She just ran for election and won an eight-year term, leading to talk that she would not want to face another election in two years. But she told the Wilmington Star-News that, if Perdue called her about the job, she would only ask, “When do I take my oath?” • Cressie Thigpen, who was just defeated for re-election to the state Court of Appeals. Perdue had appointed him to that post in 2011 to replace Barbara Jackson, who had won a seat on the Supreme Court. Much of the talk Wednesday was about Thigpen going back to the Court of Appeals in a scenario that had Beasley appointed to the high court. • Reuben Young, who is Perdue’s Department of Public Safety secretary. He has no judicial experience, and most mentions of him concerned backfilling a slot in a lower court that might open as a result of the Supreme Court choice. • Mark Davis, Perdue’s legal counsel. He has worked in private practice and at the Attorney General’s office, and was a federal judicial clerk in the early 1990s. • Anita Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a civil rights attorney in the Clinton administration. A big downside from Democrats’ point of view: She has been involved in a redistricting lawsuit and would have to recuse herself from making that closely watched case. J. Andrew Curliss

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Patricia A. Timmons-Goodson, the first and only female African-American to serve on the state’s highest court, is resigning her position.

The departure sets up a major appointment to the seven-member court for outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat who will leave office after next month.

A spokeswoman for Perdue said late Wednesday the governor intends to make the choice, even if it means disbanding an independent commission Perdue created last year to screen and recommend appointees to the courts, including the Supreme Court. She formed the commission to “take politics out of appointing judges.”

Under an executive order issued by Perdue in April 2011, the commission is supposed to gather information, evaluate applicants and recommend three people for a judicial opening – and Perdue was bound to choose one of those selections. The process is generally expected to take more than six weeks, though the order says Perdue may set a shorter timeframe.

Perdue communications director Chris Mackey and one of the judicial commission’s members, Burley Mitchell, a former state Supreme Court chief justice, said Wednesday Perdue could rescind her own order to move along the process.

They said the timing points to Perdue making a direct appointment, though no final decisions have been made.

“She is looking at all her options,” Mackey said.

Mackey affirmed that Perdue will not leave the decision to her Republican successor, Pat McCrory, whose term begins on Jan. 1 under the state constitution. McCrory’s swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 5.

Republicans issued sharp words for Perdue. Senate leader Phil Berger, a leading Republican, said Perdue should follow her own rules, saying any failure to do that on such a prominent choice would be “one more example of the rank hypocrisy soiling her legacy.” He suggested the decision should be left to McCrory.

“Gov. Perdue has not earned, nor does she have, the state’s trust to make this type of decision,” Berger said.

The jockeying highlights the importance of the position on the politically divided high court, especially as a lawsuit challenging how Republicans drew legislative district boundaries winds through the state courts. The state Supreme Court is expected to ultimately decide the redistricting issue.

One of the court’s seats was up for election this year, and millions were spent to influence the outcome as voters re-elected Republican Paul Newby.

While the court is officially nonpartisan, the political parties have taken a strong interest in its makeup, which is now 4-3 in favor of Republicans.

Timmons-Goodson is a Democrat who was appointed to the court by former Gov. Mike Easley in early 2006. She then won election that November with 58 percent of the vote.

Her eight-year term was to run through 2014.

But Timmons-Goodson, 58, notified court colleagues and Perdue in the past week that she would be stepping down.

She wrote to Perdue on Nov. 21, describing her decision as a retirement that would be effective Dec. 17.

“(T)he time has come for me to depart,” she wrote.

Neither Timmons-Goodson nor Perdue’s office had publicly disclosed the decision until it was reported online Wednesday by The News & Observer.

Timmons-Goodson then issued a statement that said, “Understanding there is a time and season for all things, I have concluded that the time has come for me to leave the Court.”

She made no mention of future plans. She was unavailable for comment, according to the public relations firm that issued her statement.

Timmons-Goodson’s statement said she was thankful for her time on the court.

“Service on the Supreme Court is a privilege that has been granted to fewer than 100 citizens in the history of this state, and I thank the people of North Carolina for the honor of serving them as an Associate Justice,” she said.

Perdue, in a statement, said Timmons-Goodson “will be sorely missed but her legacy will live on.”

“I am proud to count her as a friend and, on behalf of all North Carolinians, I thank her for the invaluable contribution she has made to our great state.”

Timmons-Goodson joined the Supreme Court after serving as a state judge for more than two decades.

She was an elected District Court judge in Fayetteville from 1984 to 1997. In 1997, Gov. Jim Hunt appointed her to the state Court of Appeals. She retired from that position in 2005.

It was early in 2006 that Easley persuaded her to return to the bench as the first black female on the Supreme Court and its fifth woman.

By then, Timmons-Goodson had other “firsts” after her name: She was the first black woman to serve as a judge in Cumberland County; she was the first black woman elected to any state appellate court; and in 2002, she served on the first three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals to be made up of all black women.

“She is a trailblazer,” Easley said when appointing her to the Supreme Court. “She is a teacher and a role model.”

Timmons-Goodson said at the time she thought her service to the state had been completed.

But, she said then, “Governor Easley offered what my family and I viewed as the opportunity of a lifetime. My husband, sons and I could not decline.”

She is married to a Fayetteville orthodontist.

Timmons-Goodson issued several dissents over the years to opinions by the court majority.

Among them were disagreements with rulings that said the state’s Medical Board cannot prevent doctors from participating in executions, that restored some gun rights for felons, and one in 2010 that said dozens of inmates sentenced to life in prison in the 1970s could not be freed.

Her name has surfaced in Washington political circles as a possible choice by President Barack Obama to a federal judgeship. There is currently one federal judicial vacancy in the Eastern District of North Carolina, a post that has been unfilled since early 2006.

News researcher David Raynor, and staff writers Craig Jarvis and Anne Blythe contributed to this report.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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