RALEIGH -- Former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr retired his robe for good last month to run a nonprofit dedicated to the study and advocacy of constitutional rights.
Orr, 57, grew up in Hendersonville and graduated from Hendersonville High School.
He practiced law in Asheville before former Gov. Jim Martin tapped him in 1986 to fill a vacancy on the N.C. Court of Appeals. Orr served eight years in the state appeals court and almost 10 years on the state Supreme Court.
He retired in July to become the executive director and senior counsel for the Institute of Constitutional Law, a nonprofit organization.
The Asheville Citizen-Times attended a public forum recently where Orr was the keynote speaker and interviewed him afterward. What follows are questions and answers from Orr's speech and subsequent interview. Want to hear more? Go to www.citizen-times.com for audio clips of the interview.
Question: Why did you retire from the N.C. Supreme Court?
Orr: I've been fortunate in the fact that I have been elected statewide four times, twice to the Court of Appeals and twice to the Supreme Court, and served a total of almost 18 years at the appellate level. You reach a point in time in your life when you feel like "OK, I've done this. Hopefully, I've done it well. Hopefully I made an impact on the lives of people. Are there other opportunities or avenues that would be challenging and interesting to do that are different from being a judge?" The Institute of Constitutional Law is an area that I have a great interest in and it seemed like if I was going to make a change, this was the time and place to do it. So, with some reluctance, I hung up my robe and moved to the other side of the bench.
Question: What is the Institute for Constitutional Law?
Orr: The Institute of Constitutional Law is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on North Carolina's constitutional law. It takes a two-pronged approach. The first is the education and advice prong, where we're going to appear in front of groups and talk about issues. We're going to schedule debates and discussions to better educate the voting public. People need to be informed. The second prong is litigation. We're not the legal aid for every conservative cause. We have to pick and choose among cases. We haven't filed any lawsuits. We don't have any briefs filed yet.
Question: What kinds of litigation cases is the institute considering?
Orr: We are looking at the issue of business incentives. You can't pick up the newspaper ... without reading something about taxpayer dollars being used to pay for some new incentive. We certainly are pro-business. We want North Carolina to have a vibrant, economic climate for business. Article 5, Section 2 of the state constitution talks about the power of taxation that should be used for public purposes only. It's not just the expenditure of tax dollars. It's the power of taxation that also has to be for a public purpose. We have reached a crisis in having to come to grips with the question of whether everything that creates jobs is a public purpose.
Question: Are citizens' state constitutional rights being trampled upon?
Orr: Well I think that would be too broad a statement. Constitutional rights cover a wide range of governmental activities. I'll give the General Assembly the benefit of the doubt in acting in good faith. But I did hear a state senator at a forum in Asheville say that there was precious little attention paid to the constitution by the General Assembly. The inclination was simply to move ahead and enact whatever law they were involved with and worry about whether it was constitutional later. There are certainly some areas, for examples in the so-called business (economic) incentives, where the specific application of laws is certainly either violating or coming very close to violating the provision that tax dollars should be used only for a public purpose.
Question: Does the public pay much attention to its constitutional rights?
Orr: We live in an information overload society, whether it's the Internet or television or all of the various ways that we can spend our time. I think a large percentage of the public tends to tune out what's going on. Candidates have spent arguably millions of dollars on candidate identification and issues that voters should be concerned about. But you could take a poll and 50 percent of the people have never heard of the candidate. Certainly constitutional issues, unless they have an immediate effect on them (the public), it is not something they tend to worry about.
Question: How can the Institute of Constitutional Law help increase public awareness?
Orr: We can only make a limited impact through our educational programs, our Web site (www.ncicl.org), forums and the general education process. I think we have to try to sensitize the media to give more attention to issues involving state constitutional law in the context of op-ed pieces, forums and debates. We're competing along with everyone else who is trying to get some kind of message out there, whether they are selling cars or a candidate is selling their ideas. We'll simply do the best we can.
Contact Bolton at (919) 833-7352 or Kbolton@citizen-times.com
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