Justice Robert Orr, a veteran of 81/2 years on the N.C. Supreme Court, stunned legal and political circles yesterday by announcing that he will resign from the state's highest court this summer with six years left in his term.
Orr, 57, said he will become the executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, a new group that says it will sue to challenge state business incentives, among other constitutional issues.
"While deciding to leave the court was a difficult decision," Orr said in a prepared statement, "I have had a strong interest in state constitutional law and the important role it has played in many of the major cases decided by the Supreme Court."
Orr, who has served on the N.C. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court for almost 18 years, said in an interview that until recently, he had planned to stay on the court until 2006, when he will turn 60.
"But this opportunity came along now, and it's an area I've been interested in for a long time," he said, noting that he teaches a class on state constitutional law at the N.C. Central University School of Law.
Democratic Gov. Mike Easley will name an immediate successor for Orr, a Republican on a court that currently has a 6-1 Republican majority.
Legal circles buzzed yesterday with such names as Court of Appeals Judges James Wynn Jr. and Patricia Timmons-Goodson and former Supreme Court Justice Franklin Freeman as Democrats who Easley could appoint.
Ultimately, though, Orr's seat will be filled in an election in November. Orr said he announced his departure now to give candidates time to organize campaigns for the seat.
Orr, who grew up in Hendersonville, has been rumored in some Republican circles to be a potential candidate for governor. But he said last night that he has no such plans right now.
"I've only run statewide five times," he said. "I certainly have no interest in jumping back into another one."
Orr has the unusual distinction of being a Republican judge who has also enjoyed backing from the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers.
Even Easley praised him yesterday.
"Justice Orr has distinguished himself as a scholar and independent thinker who is respected on both sides of the political aisle," Easley said.
Some of Orr's more memorable opinions include:
• A dissent in a challenge brought by Winston-Salem lawyer Bill Maready against business-recruiting incentives offered by Forsyth County and other local governments. The court ruled that such incentives serve a public purpose under the state constitution, Orr said they do not.
• The majority opinion in a case that gave $430 million in refunds of an unconstitutional tax on stocks to 200,000 taxpayers, even though they did not meet the requirements of a state law that required them to file timely protests of the tax.
• A dissent in a controversial redistricting case that resulted in a Johnston County judge drawing legislative districts for the 2002 elections. Orr wrote that although districts drawn by the General Assembly violated the state constitution, the Supreme Court went too far in laying out additional criteria.
Orr's most controversial words may have been outside the courtroom. After he made partisan remarks at a fund-raiser for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole in 2002, Democrats filed a complaint and Orr was admonished by the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission.
William Graham, the chairman of the new Institute for Constitutional Law, said of Orr: "He's a good, solid thinker and good, solid constitutionalist, and we are extremely pleased."
David Rice can be reached in Raleigh at (919) 833-9056 or at