THIS YEAR A GREAT MAN passed from this earth. That man was Robinson O. Everett.
Characterized by his Duke Law School colleague Clark Havigurst as "a gentle, unassuming force of nature" and equally aptly as "the slowest moving high-energy guy I have ever known," Judge Everett was also described by one of his former students, James Dever, as "utterly brilliant and disarmingly humble and kind."
Judge Everett was a remarkable and multi-faceted man: student, veteran, lawyer, professor, scholar, judge, legal advocate and constitutional activist. But he was much greater than any list of his achievements might imply.
But before we get to his real greatness, let me give you a sample, and this is just a sample, of what he accomplished in his lifetime. He graduated from high school in Durham at 15, from Harvard University magna cum laude at 19 and from Harvard Law, also magna cum laude, at 22. The same year he began teach at Duke University School of Law, remaining until today the youngest professor in the school's history. Upon graduating from law school in the midst of the Korean War, Everett joined the United States Air Force, where he was assigned to the Judge Advocate General's Corps. As a judge, he rose to the rank of chief judge of the Court of Military Appeals, the highest civilian court in the military justice system, just a step below the U.S. Supreme Court. He retired as a colonel. And he practiced law privately for more than 50 years.
Some of Judge Everett's most publicly visible acts were also his most controversial. In 1966, Everett, a protégé of Senator Sam Erwin and a yellow-dog Democrat, challenged a congressional redistricting plan for North Carolina that he thought was an illegal gerrymander aimed at preserving the incumbent's re-election, a lawsuit which forced the legislature to revise the districts, making them more compact and contiguous.
In the 1990s, as an attorney he was the legal force, and personal financier, behind the case of Shaw v. Reno. This case brought a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court against the racial gerrymandering as embodied in the creation of the long, snaking district for North Carolina's new 12th District. This district, Everett argued, amounted to legal segregation.
While he did succeed in forcing new districts to be drawn up, Everett did not get the courts to rule out racial considerations altogether in drawing districts. For his efforts to enforce the principle of color-blindness which he saw enshrined in the Constitution, Judge Everett was thought to be a racist by many who did not know him -- which he definitively and unequivocally was not.
Judge Everett's true greatness lay in his character, shown in part by his willingness to sacrifice his reputation to what he believed was right, and in a sterling character displayed daily in his interaction with those of every station in life. To the best of my observation, Judge Everett treated every person he ever met with the same warmth and respect. Looking into his face, you would never know whether he was greeting the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the homeless guy on Main Street, both of whom may well have known him by name.
His private, unpublicized and even anonymous acts of charity numbered in the thousands. In business, he rarely, it seemed, charged his many clients of modest income anything close to going rates, often working pro bono.
Unabashed in his Christian walk, he did not wear his faith on his sleeve, but he was unashamed to let anyone know "the hope he held within him." Judge Dever said that the Presbyterian Everett truly embodied Saint Benedict's first rule that those who learn to live their life in the spirit of thanksgiving will receive life's full promise. Judge Everett learned that and so he did. That is true greatness.
It just so happens that the day Ellie Everett was born, her aunt went and bought all of the local papers so that Ellie would have a record of what was happening on the day she was born. Lo and behold, there was an article about her granddad! It was this one.
I am placing a bet now on Ellie. Since her great-great grandfather, her great grandmother and her great grandfather, her grandfather, her uncle and both her parents are lawyers, I will wager that Ellie is going to be a basketball player.
Gary D. Gaddy was a friend of Robinson Everett for 15 years.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday October 2, 2009.
Copyright 2009 Gary D. Gaddy