An Interview With North Carolina’s Senior Administrative Law Judge

Following is an interview I conducted recently with North Carolina’s Senior Administrative Law Judge, Fred G. Morrison, Jr., for the Administrative Lawyer newsletter:

A Year of Recognition

For more than five decades, Fred Gilbert Morrison Jr. has epitomized the ideals of the legal profession. This past July, Judge Morrison was recognized at the Wake County Bar Association’s monthly luncheon for his fifty years in practice. In October, he received an award recognizing his forty-five years of service to the state of North Carolina – in his case a pocket watch in a case bearing the state seal of North Carolina – recognition for nearly twenty-nine years as an Administrative Law Judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings, four as solicitor of the Thomasville Recorders Court, more than six as the first executive director  of the North Carolina Inmate Grievance Commission, and more than five as legal counsel to Governors Scott and Holshouser.

Raised in east Tennessee, Judge Morrison attended Maryville College and the law school at Wake Forest. In the following interview with the Administrative Lawyer, he looks back at his career and to the future of the legal profession.

Evan Lohr: Judge, in July you were among a small group of Wake County lawyers recognized for having practiced law for fifty years. What did that mean to you?

Judge Fred Morrison: On August 16th, all five of those who were recognized will have fifty-one years in practice. I got my license on that day in 1963. I’m happy to have made it this far. It meant a lot to be included with those other lawyers, particularly Judge Ralph Walker. He’s here in Wake County and we were classmates all three years at Wake Forest, passed the bar together, and have kept up with each other over the years.

EL: Your formative years were spent in the town of Newport in east Tennessee. How did growing up in Newport affect your career and were there any lawyers there that inspired you?

JFM: Newport is very small – there aren’t very many people there at all. I went through grade school there, then Cocke County High School. I think there were 112 people in my class in a county-wide high school. It was sparsely populated.

More than anything, my teachers – in grammar school and high school – I was very motivated by them, particularly to read a lot. From a young age on, I always loved to read and I think that’s very important for a lawyer. The lawyers there that inspired me – I can remember them – they didn’t live far from the house: Fred Myers, he was one of the prominent ones, Judge Shepherd was one, and Roy Campbell was an attorney and he still is an attorney. He’s probably in his nineties now, and he was also a Sunday school teacher in the First United Methodist Church when I was young, and that impressed me and I’ve kept up with him over the years.

EL: What led you to attend law school? Why did you choose to attend Wake Forest?

JFM: I came home after three years at Maryville College for the summer and I was majoring in business administration to go into my father’s small furniture business. I’d still liked to read at Maryville. I read all the paperbacks – Erle Stanley Gardner and so forth – and I thought about whether I wanted to go back to Maryville for the final year and get the business administration degree or to go to law school.

One day I rode over to Wake Forest and I went to the law school and asked to speak to the dean. I met with Dean Weathers, who was from Raleigh, and had been a prominent lawyer here. He said that they had a program there that you could go three years undergrad and if you wanted to go to law school, after your first year of law school, they would give you your undergraduate degree, and after the next two years, they would give you your law degree. So he said he would let me in under that program after three years if I would take two courses that summer and make a B or better in them and make a modest score on the LSAT. I took the LSAT and went to High Point College for the two courses and I notified Dean Weathers and he said he would admit me.

When the day came to go over there and sign up, I hadn’t worked enough – hadn’t made enough money to go – so I didn’t go for the registration day. Dean Weathers called me at home that afternoon and asked me why I hadn’t come and I told him. He told me that if I wanted to go I should come over and register and that we’d work all of the other things out. So I went and he got me in touch with the loan person at Wake Forest, and he said if I did well after the first semester he’d consider a scholarship. And I ended up with a small scholarship.

I think, basically, that I was really impressed with Dean Carroll Weathers. He interviewed every student that applied. I’m not sure they do that today.

EL: You have described your proudest moment as an attorney as your appointment by Governor Bob Scott as Legal Counsel to the Governor. How did that come about? How did that ultimately affect your career?

JFM: Very much so. I graduated law school, and had an opportunity to clerk for a Supreme Court justice here, but also to go to work for a man in Thomasville, E.W. Hooper. He had given me the keys to his office the first semester I was at Wake Forest. I could work there, and use his books and all of that. So he offered me an associate position which I accepted, and I worked with Mr. Hooper about a year and a half.

In 1965 Governor Moore appointed me the solicitor of the Recorder’s Court in Thomasville. I did that for four years. In 1967 I was the President of the Jaycees so I invited the lieutenant governor, Bob Scott, to come ride in our parade, and he accepted and asked if I would get a few Jaycees together for coffee, which I did. And he told us he wanted young people involved in his campaign, so I was the young voter coordinator in Davidson County for his primary, and after he won that I was coordinator of Davidson, Iredell, Davie, and Rowan Counties. So after he was elected in 1968, he called me, and said he and his wife were coming through town to go to Lincolnton to pick out her inaugural gown, and asked if I would meet him for a cup of coffee. That’s where he asked me if I would come to Raleigh as his legal counsel and I said yes.

So I went to Raleigh and served four years with him, and then he went out of office. I had known a lot of Jaycees throughout the state, and so I knew Governor Holshouser, and he kept me on for a year and a half into his term. So Bob Scott brought me to Raleigh, or I wouldn’t be sitting here talking with you today.

EL: Chief Justice Mitchell mentioned in his remarks that you are the only lawyer to ever serve as legal counsel to North Carolina governors of both major parties. What personal and professional qualities allowed you to bridge the partisan gap?

JFM: I think being a member of and my association with the North Carolina Jaycees. I was president of the Thomasville Jaycees, then was legal counsel to the North Carolina Jaycees, and then President of the North Carolina Jaycees. In that time we were all Jaycees, we didn’t really look at each other as Democrats or Republicans and so I had friends in both political parties who were friends of both Bob Scott and Jim Holshouser. So when Governor Holshouser got elected – he had been a Jaycee in Boone and had come to some meetings – he asked me if I would stay on and I agreed.

EL: Justice Mitchell also told a story about when Governor Scott announced at the 1972 Wake County Chitlin’ Strut that he was appointing you to a superior court judgeship – a position that you later turned down to become the first executive director of the North Carolina Inmate Grievance Commission – a largely thankless job working on behalf of some of our state’s most forgotten people. Why did you choose that path? What drew you to the work of the IGC and what did you learn from the experiences you had there?

JFM:    Growing up in Newport my daddy used to take me on Sundays to the jail to visit the inmates, sort of a ministry he had. Like Jesus said, “I was sick and in prison and you visited me.”   When I came on with Governor Scott, one of the things I did was coordinate with prisons, probation, and paroles. In that position, I got to know and visit the prisons. And then as legal counsel and state president of the Jaycees, we formed Jaycee chapters in about forty to forty-five prisons across the state. One of the people I met was John Campbell, who was an inmate at Central Prison, they had a Jaycee chapter over there, and I made him an associate secretary of the North Carolina Jaycees.

So my childhood experiences, involvement with the work of the NC Bar Association under Governor Scott and with the Jaycees, led me to believe it was a calling or something that I’d enjoy doing, and that I wanted to do more with this cause than become a superior court judge.

EL: What is the most memorable case you have heard in 28 years as an Administrative Law Judge?

JFM: The possum drop case, for one, as it is still under dispute with New Year’s Eve approaching and a constitutional question case pending in Wake Superior Court. This case was especially interesting for me because Governor Scott had had a possum dinner – a black tie dinner – at the Governor’s Mansion. There have been a lot of other memorable cases in twenty-eight and a half years. One of them was a significant case involving the death penalty controversy going on right now regarding whether the death penalty procedure is cruel and unusual punishment. This case was filed in 2007 and it was for the approval of the execution protocol – a three drug cocktail that was being used. The first drug was to anesthetize the person, the second to paralyze them, and the third is the shot that really burns the heart to kill them. If the first doesn’t really anesthetize them, then they can feel things and they’re not totally out, and the second one paralyzes them to the extent that when they administer the third one, which everyone admitted that the third one alone would be inhumane, but because of the second drug they can’t show that. So, I ruled in the petitioners’ favor, but then it went through the Council of State and the Supreme Court, and they avoided the issue (merits) by saying OAH didn’t have jurisdiction.

EL: During your career, you have occupied the roles of advocate, advisor, and judge. How has each role prepared you for the next and what advice would you give a lawyer seeking to change roles?

JFM: I think that if you look at it, I’ve always looked at it, and Dean Weathers was good about it, that you’re an advocate for the public. At the same time as being an advocate for your client, you’re an advocate for our judicial system. We settle our disputes not by guns and knives and duels, but by the law. You’re an officer of the court, whether you’re a lawyer, a mediator, or whether you’re advising a governor, it’s a public service. As a lawyer, an advisor, or judge you’re an officer of the court, and I think each role prepared me for the next by being open to that. Also, realizing that you’re investing a part of your life in the parties before you and their dispute gives this work special meaning.

EL: All people experience challenging times in their lives and careers, and lawyers are especially prone to these challenges. How did you manage the more difficult times in your life and career?

JFM: I think it’s like Winston Churchill said when he was asked to come to speak at a graduation ceremony. I think he got up and his speech was as follows: “Young gentlemen, never give up, young gentlemen I say, never give up.” The tough times, it’s that never give up, persevere, and take life a day at a time, don’t live in the past, and don’t worry about the past or what’s going to happen to you next week. Take one day at a time. Learn from the past. I’ve had some ups and downs, and I’m going to have some more.  I am not going to give up!  I am pressing on.

EL: What are the most important lessons you learned from your mentors?

JFM: Judge Roy Hughes, I’ll never forget him. When I was appointed solicitor of the court in Thomasville, he was the judge. He was very calm and very polite and tried to do the right thing. He was a Sunday school teacher up there, and said, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” So if you have good thoughts, you’ll have good actions.

Dean Weathers was a good mentor; he wanted us to be involved in our community, not just with the law every day. You have a family life, a community life, and then a legal career. Now we have continuing legal education, and a certain number of those hours have to be ethics-related. I can remember Dean Weathers sitting on his desk saying, “young gentlemen, you can do so and so. Young gentlemen, don’t do it.”

EL: Can you share an interesting or particularly fond recollection from your time in practice?

JFM: Well, the first one is when I was just out of law school, the youngest lawyer in Thomasville, working for E.W. Hooper. My first brief was for a Supreme Court case and we came down to Raleigh and argued it and afterwards went down to the old 42nd Street Oyster Bar and I had steamed oysters and beer in a frosted mug for the first time.  We did not see many oysters when I was growing up in the mountains of east Tennessee.

Another one was as the youngest lawyer, I got a call to Denton, North Carolina, and was told Judge Ruth Garner of the Denton Recorder’s Court wanted me to come and prosecute her docket. It would’ve been my first trial and I was worried to death. I drove down there and I found the courthouse and it was in the back of a fire station. I went in there and Judge Garner was the judge – her husband had been a judge and was a lawyer – but she wasn’t a lawyer – you didn’t have to be back then. I became a life-long confidante of hers. And so that is a particularly fond memory because of the history that we had from back in Thomasville until she passed away.

EL: How has the practice of law changed over the course of your career?

JFM: When I started we didn’t have computers and internet and now e-filing is coming and we have a goal of being paperless at the OAH. We’ve got WestLaw, Lexis and all of these other things we didn’t have. We did have the North Carolina General Statutes and the North Carolina Reports but they only came out periodically. And the practice of law has become much more specialized.

EL: What do you see for the future of the legal profession?

JFM: Paperless. That’s what it’s coming to. Someday even exhibits will be, I would imagine. We have telephone hearings now in Medicaid, and we’re moving away from the traditional trial as more and more efforts are directed toward settlements.

EL: Thank you for your time, Judge, and congratulations on a remarkable career.

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