NC Supreme Court Justice Ervin discusses the judicial process

Kathryn Devoe
News Staff Writer
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North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Sam Ervin discussed how the judicial system analyzes cases and reaches a conclusions through the application of the law with students, faculty and staff.
“Everybody’s entitled to have a similar legal principle applied in their case, and the only way you can do that is for judges to follow the societally-generated rules, not their own sense of what’s fair,” Ervin said.
Ervin said individuals have the right to fair treatment.
“Our court system does something that is so obvious nobody thinks about it,” Ervin said. “Every society from the beginning of recorded history does one thing at least, which is to resolve disputes among citizens. Every society has some kind of dispute-resolution mechanism.”
The North Carolina Supreme Court resolves disputes with a two step process, Ervin said.
“The first thing you’ve got to do and perhaps the more difficult is to figure out what happened,” Ervin said. “You cannot resolve even a dispute among two children to some extent without trying to figure out what led to that dispute, what the facts are.”
Ervin said determining the facts of a case involves listening to the different perceptions people have of a situation.
“Because of our limitations of our ability to perceive if nothing else, people don’t always see the same thing when they view an event that happens,” Ervin said. “And so people can have factual disputes even if they’re all perfectly honest.”

NC Supreme Court Justice Ervin speaks to UNCA faculty and students about his experiences in court and what it means to find the truth. Photo by Nick Haseloff.

The court system uses an elaborate mechanism to determine the facts in a case, find the the pertinent law and then it applies the law to the circumstances of a case to come to a conclusion, Ervin said.
Ervin said the outcomes could be prison, fines, payment of damages or a number of alternatives.
Rachel Maynard and Nikolai Wise, members of the Student Government Association, attended the event and asked Ervin questions.
“Would you say that there is some impact on judges for the incentive to go with public opinion, not necessarily the law if they are elected?” Wise said.
Ervin said many cases ruled on at the state level do not have a political aspect and usually are criminal.
“Most of the cases that we hear are not really political in nature, and so most of those cases, the public does not get worked up about,” Ervin said.
Newspapers usually detail United States Supreme Court cases, but 95 percent of the cases in the U.S. are in state courts and not federal courts. Despite receiving lesser news coverage, the state courts have a greater impact on citizens, Ervin said.
North Carolina judges at every level of court are elected into their positions, Ervin said.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg was elected by the public to his position. He was present on April 11 to introduce Ervin and facilitate the conversation about law.
“We were talking about the philosophy of law and the creative energy that many of you have shown here. In your undergraduate years, this is when you’re able to do that. This is when you’re able to think big and think about not only the finer points of the law but how the law might be used to better our society,” Thornburg said.
Two of Ervin’s children graduated from UNC Asheville. The university gave them the opportunity to find something they were passionate about studying, Ervin said.
Ervin said he was able to visit UNCA as the North Carolina Supreme Court is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and they received authorization from the general assembly to hold court anywhere in North Carolina.
The North Carolina Supreme Court plans to hold court in Morganton on May 14, Hendersonville on May 15 and Asheville on May 16, Ervin said. The court sessions are open to the public.
“What we’re trying to do by doing all of these out-of-Raleigh sessions is to create an opportunity for members of the court to go out and educate the citizens of the state about what the court actually does,” Ervin said.