Monday, July 20, 2009

Former Supreme Court justice beats the Guv

For Bob Orr, Courtroom 5A in the Wake County Courthouse was a happy place to be at midday on Friday. It was there that Orr, a former associate justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and now the executive director and senior counsel of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, won a big one.

It was the first big courthouse win, in fact, for Orr and the institute, which has filed several lawsuits involving constitutional principles over the years since Orr retired from the Supreme Court almost five years ago after he wrote the majority opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court in the landmark Leandro schools case. The institute is one of a number of nonprofit organizations such as the John Locke Foundation that were created by and are financially supported by former state Rep. Art Pope, R-Wake, and his family to advance the cause of limited government and other libertarian principles. Orr has previously sued the state over its use of public tax resources to persuade businesses to bring plants to North Carolina and create jobs.

Orr and the institute filed a lawsuit earlier this year on behalf of Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. She was elected by the people to run the state's public schools but who had been relegated to serving as an "ambassador" to schools, as Gov. Bev Perdue put it when she appointed former Cumberland County schools superintendent Bill Harrison to the State Board of Education and called for him to be named chief executive officer of the state's schools. The lawsuit challenged whether the governor and the board could in effect alter the terms of the Constitution by transferring the superintendent's authority to the board. Hobgood ruled that Perdue and the board had violated her rights with an unconstitutional transfer of authority, and ordered that the board restore Atkinson's power to run public schools. The state is planning to appeal, but for now, Orr and the center have won a major victory.

Perhaps it's all the sweeter for Orr because in the 2008 election he ran for the Republican nomination for governor. Had he won the Republican primary (taken by Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory), he would have run against then-Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue for governor in the general election. Orr didn't win the primary and thus didn't get to match up with Perdue, but it no doubt gave him some satisfaction not just to win the lawsuit in the trial court on a constitutional principle, but also to in effect beat Perdue and foil her model for school governance with an appointed schools chief. Of course, the result could turn around on appeal, but for now Orr is basking in the glow of a big win.

Moments after Hobgood announced his decision, I asked Orr to talk about his first big win. It's all about context, he said. The previous lawsuits were successful at least in airing an issue that hadn't gotten much legal discussion in a courtroom and heightened public understanding about key constitutional concerns. But judging by the grin on his face as he watched Atkinson talking to the press, it's a whole lot better to heighten public understanding when you've just whipped the opposition in court and won a big lawsuit.


Evan M. Thomas said...

Whenever the Supreme court stands up to the executive branch in our system I'm amazed. Since the judges themselves are elected, they usually don't push hard one someone who is the head of the party.

Anonymous said...

Such a shame that, in this severe time of NC need, Robert Orr wasnt elected Governor. He's way more qualified than ANY of the others who ran and/or 'won' on the Obama coattails. Perdue would lose big time today, and I hope millions of NC citizens are disgusted with themselves after voting for her.

Steve said...

Hooray for Bob Orr! Even the fights he lost, it was obvious that he had logic and the constitution on his side.

These are challenging times, and it's hard to imagine what sort of governor Orr could have been. But it's obvious that Orr stands for (as they used to say on the Superman TV show) truth, justice, and the American way.

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