Local

NC’s highest court will review courtroom portraits amid complaint about pro-slavery judge

His pro-slavery rhetoric was extreme. And his portrait dominates our highest NC courtroom.

Justice Thomas Ruffin behaved viciously even within his context. He went out of his way not just to inflict hardship on enslaved people but also to endow brutality with the force of law.
Up Next
Justice Thomas Ruffin behaved viciously even within his context. He went out of his way not just to inflict hardship on enslaved people but also to endow brutality with the force of law.

The N.C. Supreme Court has formed a commission to study the portraits hanging inside its courtroom, including Justice Thomas Ruffin, whose presence there has drawn criticism for his 19th-century pro-slavery views.

Ruffin, whose portrait is largest and is hung behind the justices’ bench, served on the state’s highest court from 1829 to 1852, mostly as its chief.

A lawyer and farmer from Hillsborough, he is best known for his decision in State v. Mann, often described among the most notorious cases dealing with slavery.

The case involved a slave named Lydia in Chowan County, who was shot in the back for refusing her master, John Mann. Ruffin overturned Mann’s conviction on assault charges, writing in his opinion, that a slave is “one doomed in his own person, and his posterity, to live without knowledge, and without the capacity to make anything his own, and to toil that another may reap the fruits.”

In that case, Ruffin added, “the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.”

On Thursday, an N&O op-ed piece argued that Ruffin’s portrait is unworthy to hang inside the Raleigh court.

In that article, UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Eric L. Muller and former Chapel Hill Councilwoman Sally Greene added an account of Ruffin caning a slave named Bridget who gave him an insolent look. He then, according to the writers, apologized to Bridget’s master for damaging his property.

“How can Thomas Ruffin not trouble us in 2018?” they wrote in The N&O. “We needn’t worry about judging with hindsight: Ruffin behaved viciously even within his context. He went out of his way not just to inflict hardship on the enslaved people who happened to cross his path, but also to endow brutality with the force of law.”

In its order, the court established the advisory commission to study portraits of former justices and make a recommendation by Dec. 31, 2019. Public input and a review of other courts’ practices is expected, the court said.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08
  Comments