Lawyers, Wake courthouse kept their paper promises

mquillin@newsobserver.comApril 21, 2013 

  • Moving days

    Tending to decades-old oaths of office represents just a fraction of the move of many court records and operations from the Wake County Courthouse to the new Justice Center in downtown Raleigh. The Clerk of Superior Court’s office is to move on the weekend of June 16, in advance of the formal Justice Center opening around July 1.

    The new building is designed to make life easier for users such as an accused speeder who can pay a ticket without having to board an elevator. Larger courtrooms and more secure elevators will also be featured.

— William E. Rouse Jr. took seriously the oath he swore on Aug. 17, 1956, to “truly and honestly demean myself in the practice of an attorney, according to the best of my knowledge and ability.”

For its part, the court system took seriously its job of keeping a copy of that promise, hanging onto it for 56 years.

In preparing for the move of more than a million files from the Wake County Courthouse to the new Justice Center in mid-June, county workers recently found several boxes containing the originals of hundreds of attorneys’ oaths, dating as far back as 1918.

Superior Court Clerk Lorrin Freeman said the court system no longer needs the papers, each in its own yellowed cardboard sleeve, but neither did she want to throw away the documents and the history they recall.

“For some people, it represents the start of a career in which they were able to help their clients, make a difference in their community, and support their families,” she said. “For many, there was such anticipation for that day: going through law school, taking the bar exam, waiting to see if they passed and then finally taking that oath.

“It’s neat to look back at what your expectations were then of your career, and see how it turned out.”

Building a legal legacy

Freeman hopes to use the old papers as windows into the court system of their time. She plans to try to find the lawyers whose names they bear – or their descendants – and hand over the papers in exchange for recollections.

Freeman has an interest in the evolution of the court system beyond her job as the clerk of court. She is a fourth-generation lawyer, the daughter of Franklin Freeman, who in his early career served as a clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Dan K. Moore and later worked for Gov. Mike Easley. Freeman’s grandfather was a judge and her great-grandfather a lawyer, both in Surry County.

While lawyers could take their oath in any county, many of those who were sworn in in Wake County remained here to practice, and some of their children grew up to work in the profession, too.

“It’s a real treasure trove,” she said of the boxes. “I’m still going through them.”

In one of her first perusals of the dusty files, Freeman found the oath signed by I. Beverly Lake Jr., who became chief justice of the state Supreme Court, and that of his father, I. Beverly Lake Sr., who was an associate justice on the court.

She found Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr.’s oath, and that of his father, Howard Manning Sr., who died in 2002; as well as those of respected Raleigh criminal and civil attorney Duncan McMillan, his father, Robert L. McMillan Jr., and grandfather, Robert L. McMillan Sr.

She found the oath administered to William Shearon Harris, who waited tables at boarding houses to pay for his education at Wake Forest College, in its pre-University days, and was sworn in as an attorney on Sept. 12, 1938. Harris later served in the state House of Representatives and became president of Carolina Power & Light.

Toward the back of one of the boxes was the oath given to William Friday on Sept. 6, 1948, after he graduated from the UNC Law School. Friday didn’t work as an attorney, spending his career instead in higher education, becoming the first president of the UNC system in 1956.

Changing times marked

The earliest documents in the batch date to 1918, when there were only city and state courts and there were so few lawyers working in Raleigh that they all probably knew each other. Today, Wake County is its own judicial district and more than 4,000 lawyers practice here.

Women’s names appear among the newly minted attorneys as early as the 1920s.

Though the form of the oaths changed over the years – some were hammered out on manual typewriters on onion-skin paper, some were commercially printed – the wording is always the same. Each bears the original signature of the lawyer taking the oath and the judge administering it. They all have the faint scent of old books.

Ideally, Freeman said, she’d like to collect oral histories from the lawyers and archive them in the Justice Center, which will open officially in July. She said she may try to have some of the documents framed to hang in the new building as part of an historical exhibit.

‘Well, look at that’

The courts no longer cling indefinitely to paper copies of attorney’s oaths. After a time, they’re electronically archived.

Rouse, now 83, wasn’t sure why he wanted to see if his oath was among those in basement discovery.

When he found that he was, he was surprised and delighted.

“Well, look at that,” he said, unfolding the paper that took him back immediately to the hectic day on which he hustled down to the courthouse to take his oath.

He thought of the building itself, which was torn down and replaced in 1970, and of the judge, Malcolm Seawell, and of the next year of his life, spent working as an investigator for the federal government in Washington, before he came back to Raleigh to practice law.

Like the court system hung onto the paper that marked the start of his career, Rouse has stayed with the work.

“I still enjoy it,” he said.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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