Burley Mitchell Receives Liberty Bell Award
By Russell Rawlings
Any list beginning with the name of Sam Ervin Jr. followed by two governors and a cast of distinguished jurists and lawyers is bound to get your attention, especially when your name’s just been added to it.
The sensation repeats itself every year when the Young Lawyers Division of the North Carolina Bar Association presents the Liberty Bell Award, and 2011 was certainly no different when former Chief Justice Burley B. Mitchell Jr. received the award.
“I saw some of my heroes,” Mitchell said. “The first recipient was Sam Ervin Jr. To start off with him and go from there, and I knew most of them and admired them. That really impressed me.”
Not bad for a fellow who dropped out of high school. Twice.
Mitchell departed Broughton High School in Raleigh for the United States Marine Corps at the ripe old age of 15. But even after he was caught, Mitchell didn’t stay put for long. Once he turned 17 he was off again, this time to join the Navy.
“I was 15 when I went into the Marine Corps,” Mitchell recalled from the Raleigh offices of Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice, where he has practiced since 1999. “I went to Parris Island and got through basic training. Back in those days they still had people who didn’t have birth certificates, so they would let you in on family Bible verification.
“The recruiter picked up a Bible at the hock shop and wrote out the family history and put in my birthday. Those were different times. I got through basic training and went to advanced infantry training. While you’re there – every Marine’s a rifleman – then they start sorting you out and testing about where they’re going to put you.
“They were going to put me in an artillery unit that had the first tactical nuclear shell. That was enough that they had to run a little extra security on me. The FBI picked it right up and they sent me home. By then I was 16.”
Mitchell came home with a story that would stick with him for a lifetime.
“I went back to high school and stayed awhile until I turned 17, then I dropped out and joined the Navy,” Mitchell said. “I asked to go to the West Coast so I would get to see Asia. I was on sea duty for a couple of years, then I applied for underwater demolition school and went through that.”
He was actually a Navy SEAL for the briefest period of time, Mitchell added with a snap of his fingers.
“President Kennedy was my commander in chief, along toward the end of my term. I was in Coronado, Calif., with the amphibious assault base. One day President Kennedy said he was creating these new special forces, the Green Berets, and the Navy SEAL teams that were going to be sea, land, air. At that point they sent us to jump training, and then I got out. I was only in SEALS long enough to complete the training. And it was totally different, nothing like they are now. They are so superior in their training now.”
Former Gov. Jim Hunt referenced Mitchell’s SEAL-like spirit when he introduced his lifelong friend at Law Day, where he was joined by Mark Davis who serves as general counsel to Gov. Perdue.
“I tell people I am the luckiest guy in the world,” Mitchell says of his service experience. “I was in Vietnam when there was just enough going on for it to be exhilarating. The team I was in was not in any danger; nobody even knew we were there. Basically what we were doing was taking soil samples. We would go in at night and take canvas bags and go on the beach in various places.
“The purpose of it was for the people who were mapping the area to know where the beaches were firm enough to support heavy equipment, and also to know for sure the depth of the water. General depths are one thing, but going in you’ve got to know. They were really astute to do that.”
With good reason, Mitchell added.
“I think the reason they thought of that is because they still had a lot of World War II guys in the admiralty, and they remembered Guadalcanal and Kwajalein and some of those places where they thought they knew the depth of the water, then they got in and had to drop those Marines out in the landing crafts about 200 yards out, and they had to wade in.
“Some of them drowned. They had to wade in chest deep and people were shooting at them. So, like I said, it was just enough to be exhilarating. I came back to the states and shortly thereafter things really started to get bad over there.”
Technically, Mitchell never did graduate from high school.
“The military has an equivalent of the GED and all of the states recognized it,” Mitchell recalled. “I took it while I was overseas. It was just a real hot day and I didn’t much want to go to work that day so I went over and took the test and passed it.
“When I came back from overseas, Mr. (Jesse) Sanderson who Sanderson High School is named for was then superintendent of public schools. By then I was over 21 so I couldn’t go back to high school. He cleared it for me to take a couple of English courses when got me through college admission, and that’s all I needed.”
Mitchell proceeded to North Carolina State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1966, and the University of North Carolina School of Law, where he graduated in 1969.
That’s quite a metamorphosis for a young man who apparently couldn’t stand the sight of a classroom during his formative years.
“For some reason, when I got into college, I developed this voracious appetite to learn,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to absorb it all. As a result I had a fellowship to the University of Virginia in history and political science. I was thinking maybe I would teach at the college level.
“But the more I thought about it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be back in a total academic setting. It looked to me like the people who really influenced things were lawyers. It seemed to me that law was a good mix of the academic and the practical, a little more academic than the ordinary businessman. If you were going to be in court, which is all I knew lawyers did at that point, you were actually going to be having some affect on things. I decided I would go to law school and give up the fellowship.”
But first he had to sell his young bride, the former Lou Willett, on the idea.
“I was married at the time,” Mitchell said, “so I had to go explain that to my wife and God bless her, she has always let me do about what I wanted to. She explained to me the extra difficulty it would have on her having to work and take care of our little boy who at that time was about three. She was a real trooper and put up with it.
“If I had not married her, I would have been pumping gas until they stopped hiring people to pump gas and then I would have been unemployed. I think I always had some intelligence but I wasn’t very focused. She is almost like a third parent to me, which she didn’t sign up for but wound up being. She was more frugal with money, more grown up, and in some ways I still haven’t grown up. She has been a constant polar star for me, a fixed point in my constellation that doesn’t change.
“I would not have done much without her.”
So off he went to law school, “funded partially by Uncle Sam and the other half was the Lou Mitchell Scholarship.”
Immediately thereafter, Mitchell embarked upon a career in public service that began in the attorney general’s office under Robert Morgan and culminated as chief justice of the Supreme Court. In between he served as district attorney for Wake County, as secretary of crime control and public policy, and as a judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals.
To hear him tell it, Mitchell enjoyed every moment, especially his years as a prosecuting attorney.
“When I went with the AG’s office,” Mitchell said, “I wanted to be in court, and Robert Morgan wound up putting me there in spades. I was taking on cases that had I been at a private law firm I wouldn’t have gotten for 10 years. I was anxious to do them and a lot of the guys at the AG’s office were willing to let somebody else do them, so I got a lot of courtroom experience there and was exposed to some of the judges.
“I still wasn’t thinking about going on the bench. At that point I became DA for Wake County and I loved that. That has got to be one of the best jobs in the world. It’s got a lot of pressure and some decisions to make, and you’re constantly catching it from all sides. But the great thing about it is you call the shots. You have to live with the results but you don’t have to check with anybody else.
“The attorney general can’t indict somebody nor can a judge. It’s only the DA, so you have to make those decisions and live with them. I loved that.”
All the while, Mitchell assumed he would eventually transition into private practice. He just didn’t think it would take him three decades to get there.
Mitchell left the Supreme Court in 1999, completing exactly 30 years of public service. Many, including former law clerk Paul Meggett who attended the presentation of the Liberty Bell Award, thought he left too soon.
“Burley Mitchell is a hero and mentor of mine,” Meggett said, “but not for the obvious reasons. Yes, he’s been a great jurist, strong supporter of the rule of law and staunch advocate of justice. He has been an outstanding public servant, and his accomplishments and achievements are beyond compare. But what makes him my hero, and why I’ve tried to model my life and career after him, are how he carries himself and his selflessness.
“I remember when I clerked for him at the Supreme Court, I would marvel that when he would take me places, very often he would be the smartest person in the room, whatever the venue – whether in chambers, at the legislature, downtown having lunch with other lawyer or judges – but he didn’t have to advertise it. He has this quiet strength that lets you know he’s in charge, but he’s also approachable, accessible.
“He’s the most unassuming person I’ve ever met, and it’s not at all false humility. He always wants to grow, wants to learn, and even when his knowledge base is head-and-shoulders above the next person, he always makes you feel like he can learn something from you.
“He is also the most selfless person I’ve met. He tirelessly gives of himself to so many causes, and in so many ways. He’s been the consummate citizen lawyer. Yet, he doesn’t do it for the limelight (in fact, he seems to prefer to stay out of the spotlight), or because of duty. He seems to do it, simply because, that’s what lawyers should do – help people. If Burley Mitchell can help you he will, and if he can’t, he’ll find someone who can. He always thinks of others first and is the epitome of a servant leader. I’m proud to have worked for him. I’m proud to serve at the bar with him. I’m proud and honored to call him my friend.”
For Mitchell, the timing was right, not only to step down, but also to step into another career.
“When I put together my last state of the judiciary address,” Mitchell said, “I realized that we had the courts, honestly, in about the best shape they were going to be in in my lifetime. The Supreme Court was absolutely current in its workload for the first time in its history. Our judges out in the state, Superior Court and District Court, really had put in several years of real intense work. The caseloads had been pulled down in all levels of our court.
“And I had done a lot of what I wanted to do: created the Business Court and created the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, both of which are still functioning. I just felt like things were in good shape. I was 58 years old, which was still young enough to basically have another career and do something else. Had I stayed on until I was 72, the maximum age, I guess I would still found things to do but I wouldn’t have been the same commodity.”
Mitchell left the bench on a Friday, started with Womble Carlyle the following Monday, “and had some work waiting for me. I never looked back”
Among those central to his recruitment to the firm were Grady Barnhill and Keith Vaughan.
“Grady is an old friend of mine,” Mitchell said, “although he’s older than I am but not much older, and Keith Vaughn who is now the chairman of Womble. Keith and my brother entered Womble at the same time and I had known him since they were staying with my parents when they took the bar exam.
“Grady was real good friends with some of my mentors, Chief Justice Branch and Justice David Britt, and some of the ‘Wake Forest mafia.’ I just liked Grady immediately. We stayed fairly close throughout and still do. When I see him he razes me, saying ‘go make some money for my retirement.’
“He’ll retire when they carry him out on a plank.”
Mitchell, it would appear, is no less ready to call it quits.
“I have been spoiled every place I’ve been,” Mitchell said. “Every place I have been I have skimmed the cream. And here, my partners here, I could not have come to a better firm. I don’t have to do all the administrative things, we have a great administrator, great managing partners, and they have just handed me the prime work
“There was a little girl in here interviewing me for her school paper, one of our lawyer’s daughters, and she asked me who I represented. I told her I’ve represented the cream. I’ve represented Google, Dell, Chrysler, and the interesting people, like Benazir Bhutto, and I also represented Shawn ‘Puff Daddy’ Combs.
“And that’s the one she told her mother about when she got home. Nothing else rang a bell but she said to her mother, ‘Did you know he represented ‘Puff Daddy?’ ”
Another reason Mitchell shows no signs of slowing down, he says, is because it’s not an option.
“I’ve had good cases and fascinating work, but the main thing that has kept me up and vigorous is James Baxter Hunt,” Mitchell said of his lifelong friend. “You can’t hide from him and he’s always got something for you to do.”
Mitchell cannot recall the day they met.
“I was a little boy,” Mitchell said. “Our fathers worked together in agricultural extension service, soil and water conservation, part of the Roosevelt policies. During World War II, my father was in U.S. Farm and Agriculture with the State Department job in Jamaica. A lot of the farmers had gone off to war and they needed hands here to work, so he was down there heading a team that gave the Jamaicans medical exams, checking criminal records, putting together crews and sending them up here.
“Mr. Hunt Sr. was a contact point, and at one point they both had an office over here at N.C. State.”
The paths of the future chief justice and the future four-term governor crossed many times after that, and they have been virtually inseparable since Mitchell worked on Hunt’s successful campaign for lieutenant governor in 1972.
“I have really been blessed,” Mitchell stated in accepting the Liberty Bell Award. “I am very fortunate with my fortuitous meeting of people in my life, just as you will be.
“Between the two of them, my wife at home and Gov. Hunt who never rests – he’s worse than the Energizer bunny; he’s now 72 I guess and still going as strong as he did at 22 and I’m about to wear out – I have been blessed to meet these two people.”