Alumni News

News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC)

Sarah Parker chosen as Chief Justice

State Supreme Court veteran Sarah Parker will be North Carolina's next chief justice. Gov. Mike Easley said Wednesday that he's appointing Parker, 63, to succeed retiring I. Beverly Lake Jr. as the state's top judge -- a job she'll have to fight to keep.

Parker, the seven-member court's only woman and only Democrat, will run in an officially nonpartisan statewide election in November to try to win the job for eight more years. She was re-elected in 2004 as an associate justice and, with 13 years' service, has the most seniority on the court.

Her elevation to chief justice virtually ensures a smooth transition after Lake's five-year tenure. And it keeps alive a quirky streak: Only three women have served on the state's Supreme Court, but all three became its chief.

"It's a culmination of a legal career that many people dream of," Parker said Wednesday. "My experience as a judge has prepared me to take this position.

"I think it is special for a lot of women to have a woman chief justice. I think it sends a good signal to a lot of women out there about what they can aspire to."

North Carolina's other female chief justices were Rhoda Billings, a Republican who ran the court briefly in the 1980s, and Susie Sharp, a Democrat who led it for most of the 1970s.

Parker said that as chief justice she hopes to boost legislative funding of the court system, make the courts more efficient and expand family and drug-treatment courts.
"We have a good court system, maybe one of the best in the nation," she said. "But there's room for improvement."

Parker's elevation creates another vacancy for Easley to fill. That person, too, would have to run this fall to keep the seat.

Parker's appointment seems likely to please many judges and lawyers who know her as a meticulous, no-nonsense, conservative judge, especially in business and criminal cases. Before becoming a judge two decades ago, she was a corporate lawyer for 15 years.

"As a former prosecutor, attorney general and as governor, I can say that Sarah Parker is one of the most well-respected justices on the bench," Easley said in a statement. "She is highly regarded in the law enforcement, legal and business communities. She is well-known for her fairness and independence, which is necessary for an effective judiciary. I am confident in her ability to lead the Supreme Court."

Parker, a Charlotte native, earned her undergraduate and law degrees at UNC-Chapel Hill. After working in private practice, she was appointed to the N.C. Court of Appeals in 1984. She served there until 1993, when she joined the Supreme Court.

Lake, a Republican who is stepping down at the end of the month at the mandatory retirement age of 72, praised Parker's selection.

"Sarah is the logical choice, and I think highly of her," Lake said. "She is an excellent jurist with a keen, analytical mind. She will do an exceptional job."

In seeking and accepting the promotion, Parker takes a gamble of sorts. If she had stayed as an associate justice and run for the chief justice spot this fall, she could have lost that race and still kept her current seat. Now, if she loses the election, she'll go off the court.

"I felt like it was the right thing to do, and I should go ahead and step up to the plate," she said. "I hope, having run in six statewide elections in the past 20 years, I have gained a little momentum."

So far, only one other person has announced an intention to run for chief justice: Russell "Rusty" Duke, a Superior Court judge in Greenville. Duke is a Republican.

Parker said she hopes her move up to chief justice will deter other opponents.
Her new job will be quite different from her old one. Besides participating in the court's normal business, the chief justice has heavy administrative duties overseeing the state's judicial system.

"I'll be busier, for sure," Parker said. "Running the court system, doing my work on the court and campaigning -- it will be like three full-time jobs."

SARAH PARKER
HOME: Charlotte.
BORN: Aug. 23, 1942.
FAMILY: Single.
EDUCATION: Bachelor's in English education, UNC-CH, 1964; law degree, UNC-CH, 1969.