Sam Ervin IV Becomes Third-Generation Recipient of Liberty Bell Award

Samuel James Ervin, IV, of Morganton is the 2023 recipient of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award. The award is presented annually by the Young Lawyers Division in conjunction with Law Day. Ervin was recognized on Friday, May 5, during the Law Day awards ceremony in Raleigh.

The award has now been presented to three generations of Ervin’s family, beginning with his grandfather, former U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., who received the first Liberty Bell Award in 1983, and his father, Judge Sam J. Ervin III, who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and was honored in 1999.

Sam Ervin IV, who also goes by Jimmy, is a former justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina (2015-2023), a former judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals (2009-2015), and former Commisioner of the North Carolina Utilities Commission (1999-2009). A graduate of Davidson College and Harvard Law School, he practiced law in his native Morganton prior to entering public service. He now serves of counsel with Brooks Pierce.

Retired Chief Judge Linda McGee of the N.C. Court of Appeals, a former recipient of the Liberty Bell Award, submitted Ervin’s nomination for this year’s award.

“Justice Ervin’s service as a Justice of our state Supreme Court, as well as his entire legal career in private practice, in representing indigent criminal defendants, on the Utilities Commission and the Court of Appeals, clearly exhibit his dedication to the highest ideals of the law,” McGee said.

“His strong intellect, his integrity and his always positive relationships with all in our courts have resulted in great admiration for Justice Ervin and thanks for his outstanding contributions to the work of our system of justice for all.”

Ervin, in his typically self-effacing manner, acknowledged the distinction that he now carries as the third member of his family to receive this award.

“I think this would be a first,” Ervin said, “because most families probably have enough sense to take up something different for a generation.”

Ervin IV is photographed at the Law Day Ceremony with Clayton Morgan.

Sam Ervin IV, center, displays Liberty Bell Award alongside NCBA President Clayton Morgan and former Chief Judge Linda McGee. (Photo courtesy Bob Friedman, Attorney at Law magazine)

Ervin recalls coming to Raleigh to see his grandfather receive an award from the NCBA, although he is not certain if it was the Liberty Bell Award or the Judge John J. Parker Award, which he received in 1985.

“But I do distinctly remember when Dad got the Liberty Bell Award,” Ervin said. “It was in May of the year that he died. I remember being at an outside luncheon the year it was awarded to him. I think Martin Brinkley, who was one of Dad’s acolytes, was chair of the Young Lawyers Division that year, and I am sure Martin had something to do with it.”

Beginning with his great-grandfather, Ervin represents the fourth consecutive generation of his family to practice law and is being followed by a niece who is already practicing law and a nephew who is in law school.

“We’ve got five generations going at this point,” Ervin said in regard to the family tradition, which also includes his brother, Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin. “I remember somewhat when Dad was in private practice; I remember people called the house in the middle of the night and that kind of stuff. But what I really remember more was his time as a Superior Court judge, because in the summers I would occasionally go to court with him, and he would come home from court in the evening.

“My mother always insisted that we not have dinner till he got there, and since he held court about half the time in Charlotte and insisted on going back and forth when that was more like a two-hour trip, we would usually wait until 7:30 to eat dinner. The hungry teenagers were not always thrilled about waiting, but he would come in and talk about the cases that he had heard that day, and about the decisions he had to make. It was really important to him that he get it right, and he worried a great deal about the decisions that he made.”


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Lessons learned around the dinner table, and years later when their father was serving on the Fourth Circuit, have served the Ervin brothers well during their time on the bench.

“We never really got to talk to Dad, either Bob or me, after we got to be in the judiciary, but he would remind us that what we were doing had a really deep impact on people’s lives, and we needed to keep that in mind. We were not engaging in just some kind of academic exercise, but we were instead doing something that had a real effect on real people.

“He wasn’t trying to suggest that we ought to decide cases based on whether you felt sorry for people, or because you had an emotional reaction to the situation, but you did need to keep track of that to make sure you took what you were doing” exceedingly seriously.

That, Ervin added, was probably the biggest lesson he learned from his father, followed closely by the way his father treated people in general.

“He did this by more by example than by anything he said,” Ervin said, “by just the way that he treated people in the community. In years later, after his death, I have run into court personnel across the state who always commented on how he went out of his way to take time to get to know them – in addition to the lawyers and the people who were obviously higher up the food chain in terms of political or governmental or social status.

“That is something that I have tried to emulate myself in my own life. Whether I have done that successfully is somebody else’s call, not mine, but that is what it felt like ought to be done.”

Ervin cannot recall the exact moment when he decided to become a lawyer, only that his parents emphasized that he shouldn’t become one just because everyone else in the family seemingly had done so.

“They encouraged me to think about some other things,” Ervin said, “and I particularly remember thinking about that in college because I was getting to the point where I had to decide whether I was going to go to law school or not. I’ve always been very interested in history, and I thought about getting a Ph.D. in history.

“I went to Davidson, which at that point and I assume still does, given its church affiliation, require you to take a certain number of philosophy and religion courses. I did that, and I found the academic religion courses very interesting. I never felt any kind of call to the parish ministry, but I thought it might be interesting to do like some of my professors who were not ministers but taught religion after they got their Ph.Ds.”

Ultimately, Ervin continued, the idea of being in academia didn’t really appeal to him, whereas the practice of law obviously did.

“The law was more suited for the kinds of interests that I had,” Ervin said, “and I certainly have not regretted making that decision. Who knows what would have happened if I’d done something differently, but I’ve been very, very privileged in the life I’ve been able to lead in the legal profession.

“As I look back on it, it’s been over 40 years now, which is kind of scary, but it was the right decision then and I think it was the right decision now.”

If Ervin needs further confirmation regarding his decision, all he needs to do is look at the listing of Liberty Bell Award recipients that now includes his name.

“Linda McGee apparently bamboozled the committee on my behalf, which I appreciate,” Ervin quipped. “It’s so nice to be recognized this way. It’s really an honor. I was kind of staggered when Linda even suggested the idea to me and got some names of people for her to contact.

“It’s difficult to believe that you get thought of in the same vein as the folks that are on that list. I have known a lot of them and there are others I didn’t know, but I’ve heard of all of them. It’s an impressive roster.”

Liberty Bell Award Recipients

2023 – Justice Samuel James Ervin IV
2022 – Cheryl Howell
2021 – Chief Justice Cheri Beasley
2020 – Congressman Mike McIntyre
2019 – Chief Justice Mark D. Martin
2018 – Judge James A. Wynn Jr.
2017 – Chief Judge Linda M. McGee
2016 – Judge A. Elizabeth Keever
2015 – Judge Sammie Chess Jr.
2014 – Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James B. Mallory III
2013 – Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson
2012 – Judge W. Earl Britt
2011 – Justice Harry C. Martin
2009 – U.S. Attorney Janice McKenzie Cole
2008 – Stacy C. Eggers Jr.
2007 – Judge R. Maurice Braswell
2006 – Judge Herbert L. Richardson
2005 – William Joslin
2004 – Chief Justice Henry E. Frye
2003 – Judge Robert R. Browning
2002 – Judge Lacy H. Thornburg
2001 – Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.
2000 – William C. Friday
1999 – Judge Sam J. Ervin III
1998 – Senator Terry Sanford
1997 – Herbert H. Taylor
1996 – Judge J. Dickson Phillips Jr.
1995 – Wade E. Brown
1994 – Judge Hiram H. Ward
1993 – Kathrine R. Everett
1992 – Congressman L. Richardson Preyer
1991 – Justice J. Frank Huskins
1990 – McNeill Smith
1989 – Judge Franklin T. Dupree, Jr.
1988 – Secretary of State Thad Eure
1987 – Chief Justice Joseph Branch
1986 – Dr. Robert E. Lee
1985 – William B. Aycock
1984 – Chief Justice Susie M. Sharp
1983 – Senator Samuel J. Ervin Jr.

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.