MOREHEAD CITY — After a decades-long career, Appellate Court Judge and former State Supreme Court Justice Robert Hunter is retiring.
Monday marks his last day as an appellate judge, as he has met the state-mandated age of retirement, 72. A resident of Morehead City, Judge Hunter has made a name for himself after decades navigating North Carolina’s judiciary.
“I graduated from (UNC) Chapel Hill in 1969,” Judge Hunter said. “I went to law school and graduated from Chapel Hill Law School (in 1973).”
After graduation, he began practicing in Greensboro prior to getting involved with a number of statewide initiatives. Judge Hunter, a lifelong Republican, said he owes much of his early inspiration to two key figures.
“I used to watch Perry Mason on television,” Judge Hunter said with a slight laugh. “I just thought Perry Mason was great, and I just thought I wanted to do that. I thought it was a great thing to do. When I used to go to a camp in Morehead, in the summers, someone gave me the book “Conscience of a Conservative.” I read that and I thought (the author, Barry Goldwater) was great.
“I became a Republican back then and that was rare. Republicans weren’t part of the political scene,” he told the News-Times in an interview this month.
Of the cases that defined his early career, gerrymandering was one of his primary focuses.
Judge Hunter, then a North Carolina attorney, became one of the few lawyers who pleaded a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“In 1985, I had five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, all on gerrymandering,” Judge Hunter said.
He acknowledged that gerrymandering continues to be at the forefront of the state’s judicial and political landscape. He added that he isn’t concerned about the state taking decades, from the beginning of his career to now, to potentially settle the matter.
“There is an expression that things will continue to be litigated until it is settled rightly,” Judge Hunter said. “I don’t think we have the right formula yet. It doesn’t particularly trouble me. It’s an opportunity to keep lawyers employed, I suppose. I hope we will get it right sooner or later.”
As a judge, he was appointed to the appellate circuit in 2009.
“I was there until I went to the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Judge Hunter said. “I served on the North Carolina Supreme Court as an appointed judge in the fall of 2014. I lost the statewide election that year.”
Judge Hunter was torn about judicial campaigning. Although he lost a judicial election to reclaim his position in the state Supreme Court, he doesn’t outright reject politicizing judgeships.
“That’s a very complex thing,” Judge Hunter said. “The Bible said that God told Moses to appoint judges, so I kind of agree with the Bible about that, but I don’t think people want to lose their right to vote on the judges. I don’t think we’re going to have appointed judges anytime soon.”
Judge Hunter was re-elected to the court of appeals in 2016. He also spent years teaching law at institutions like North Carolina Central and Wake Forest universities.
He said that while he made different impacts as a lawyer, educator and judge, one relatively recent instance stands out in his mind.
“One of the cases I did recently was a case called State vs. Carter,” Judge Hunter said. “It was a murder case, and this man was accused of murdering a young woman. In reading the trial transcripts, I (felt) the DNA evidence was not properly introduced. So I dissented and said he should have gotten a new trial. My colleagues disagreed with me.”
After some media scrutiny, the accused is scheduled in coming weeks to receive a new trial.
“It turns out the DNA evidence was not only (inconclusive), the state lab messed up the results,” Judge Hunter said. “After six years … an innocent man is going to get out of prison because of things I pointed out in my descent.”
Judge Hunter also touted some of his larger cases, such as the merger of Wachovia and Wells Fargo banks.
“There are a number of things that I’m proud of,” Mr. Hunter said, adding that there are still things that need to be done in the state. “I just feel that access to justice is really difficult for poor people and middle-income people. It costs too much to have these disputes in courts. I think that’s a big problem, right now.
“I just think that’s a problem, if you have a dispute with somebody and you can’t solve it (because) it costs too much to go to court to get it fixed,” he said.
This is one of several topics Judge Hunter hopes younger attorneys will eventually settle. As for now, he said he is looking forward to spending more time in Morehead City. While his judgeship might be over, he plans to some arbitration work with local firms.
“I’ll just wait and see what comes through the door,” Judge Hunter said. “You’ll never know what you are going to catch until you put a line down.”
Contact Dean-Paul Stephens at 252-726-7081, ext. 232; email Dean@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @DeanPEStephens.