Howard E. Covington Jr. dangles an intriguing historical footnote in his excellent new biography of Greensboros Henry Frye. The author, who also lives in Greensboro, describes Republican Gov. Jim Martins 1985 appointment of Rhoda Billings to the N.C. Supreme Court (where Frye was already seated).
Billings would be the first Republican associate justice to serve since Democrats had tried to rid the court of Republicans in 1901 when Chief Justice David M. Furches and Associate Justice Robert M. Douglas, both Republicans, were impeached. Democrats in the state house were angry at the courts attempt to overturn the white supremacy laws passed by the Democratic majority in the 1899 General Assembly. The senate failed to convict.
How did I miss that history lesson?
A little research uncovered a fascinating story and lessons apt for our own times plus interesting family connections.
Robert M. Douglas was the son of Democratic Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the grandfather of 101-year-old Greensboro attorney Robert Dick Douglas.
I spoke Monday with Dick Douglas, whose mind is sharper than most peoples half his age (his latest letter to the editor was published Tuesday).
The impeachment was entirely political, he said, while giving it a little different framework than the brief reference in Covingtons book.
The issue was more about partisan power than white supremacy, although racism was indeed the driving political force in North Carolina around the turn of the 20th century.
Republicans, white and black, controlled state government off and on during Reconstruction, but Democrats took it back in 1898, beginning with a violent coup detat in Wilmington and continuing through state elections that year and in 1900. Their victories were aided by widespread voter intimidation, and worse. Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement of black voters were to follow.
The 1899 legislature sought to oust Republicans from state government and replace them with Democrats. Previously, the state Supreme Court had ruled that officeholders could not be removed before the expiration of their appointed terms, unless the offices themselves were abolished. The legislature tried to sidestep that problem by doing away with various agencies and establishing new ones with the same functions but different names and putting Democrats in charge.
This led to a spate of lawsuits, including one filed by a Theophilus White, who had been appointed in 1897 to a four-year term as chief inspector for the Shellfish Commission with a guaranteed salary. In 1899, the new legislature reformed the commission and directed that White should no longer be paid.
His case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1900 that White was improperly denied the rights of his office before his term was over. The vote on the court was 3-2 along party lines. Douglas and Furches were joined by Republican Chief Justice William T. Faircloth. The two Democrats dissented.
On Feb. 1, 1901, a bill of impeachment was brought before the House of Representatives against Douglas and Furches (Faircloth had died two months earlier).
Dick Douglas detailed these events in an article for the N.C. State Bar Journal. The justices were accused of intruding into legislative power and violating their oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of North Carolina, he wrote.
It was an outrage. The same could be said for any judge who overturned any law for any reason. Yet the House voted in favor of impeachment on four counts.
Cooler heads prevailed in the Senate. Although a majority voted to convict on one count, the total fell well short of the two-thirds needed to unseat Douglas and Furches. While acquitted, neither justice ran for re-election when his term ended.
Furches, a resident of Iredell County, returned to Statesville to practice law. He died in 1908.
Douglas was born in his mothers home county of Rockingham in 1849 and educated at Georgetown University. Ironically, he was private secretary for Republican Gov. W.W. Holden in 1868. Later, after fiercely opposing the Ku Klux Klan, Holden was impeached and removed from office by a Democratic legislature the only North Carolina governor to meet that fate.
Douglas died in Greensboro in 1917, a few months before his grandson, Dicks, fifth birthday.
Today, this old story reminds us of the turmoil caused when political powers try to bend the courts to their will. If it happened before, it can happen again.
MCT Information Services
Doug Clark is an editorial writer at the News & Record in Greensboro.