2008 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
James A. Wynn ’75
Every Sunday morning, Judge James Wynn ’75 picks up his father and takes him to church. He drives 110 miles. Each way.
That sort of dedication to doing the right thing characterizes Jim Wynn’s approach to life, and one of the reasons he is receiving the Harvey Beech Outstanding Alumni Award.
An appellate judge on the N.C. Supreme Court in 1998 and on the Court of Appeals of North Carolina for 18 years, Jim has been honored by the N.C. Acad¬emy of Trial Lawyers as the Appellate Judge of the Year. He recently received an award from the National Bar Association, and has been honored twice by Marquette University. He sits on several national boards, including the Uniform Law Conference and the Justice at Stake Campaign. The immediate past chair of the American Bar Association’s 4,000-member Judicial Division, he is the chair of the ABA’s 2009 National Diversity Summit. During his 29 years of service with the Navy and Navy Reserve, Jim, a captain, has served as commanding officer of the Navy Reserve Judicial Unit.
Twice, President Clinton nominated Jim to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where he would have been the first African-American jurist to serve on the 4th Circuit, but, Jim said, “Jesse Helms decided that the court shouldn’t be integrated on his watch” and blocked his appointment.
Jim was born and raised on a farm in Robersonville in Martin County. He views himself as “one of the first beneficiaries of the civil rights movement,” he said. He came to Carolina in the early 1970s during a time of turmoil, sit-ins and student movements. “We were still very much segregated, even though it was over by law,” he said. “Still, UNC was certainly progressive when you compare it to eastern North Carolina.” He wrote for The Black Ink, and rushed through his undergraduate degree in three years, went directly to law school at Marquette University, then got a master of law degree from the University of Virginia.
Even though he was drawn to law because of its power to shape change in society, he admits it was also a profession that would afford him a decent living. “Education, for people who came from rural communities, was and still is the key to achievement,” he said. “It was a way to get to a career, and we wanted a piece of the American pie.”
After law school, he joined the Navy as a lawyer, surprising everyone in his family, none of whom had a military background. He enjoyed the experience so much, he stayed on in the Reserve and is coming up on the 30-year anniversary that will mark his retirement from the Navy. He practiced law for several years in Greenville and Wilson, a good bit of that time in a law partner¬ship with Congressman G.K. Butterfield and State Representa¬tive Toby Fitch, who was convinced to take him on as a partner when Jim sold himself as an asset to the firm, saying, “I won’t be a liability. You will make money with me in the law firm.”
Congressman Butterfield said Jim went on to impress them with his intellect, his humor and his thirst for knowledge.
Jim is best-known for his service on the bench. Chief Judge John Martin remarked on Jim’s strong work ethic and his well-reasoned, well-written opinions. Jim handles difficult situations with grace, Judge Martin said, citing Jim’s willingness to return to the Appellate Court after his narrow defeat for re-election to the state Supreme Court. “He didn’t consider service on this court to be any less of a calling than on the Supreme Court,” Judge Martin said. “We handle so many more cases and affect so many more people’s lives with our work here.”
One of Jim’s former classmates, Patricia Timmons-Goodson ’76, associate justice in the N.C. Supreme Court, said she and Jim shared the belief that “as you rise, you are obligated to pull up others.” Jim hires new law clerks every year to give the op¬portunity to more young people. He strives for diversity among his law clerks and the hundreds of interns, externs and summer clerks he has hired over the years. In the Navy, he ensured that young officers got the medals, promotions and leadership op¬portunities they deserved, creating “force multipliers,” he said, “people who take the philosophy you believe in and move that out into other venues.”
Jim is married to Jacqueline Rollins Wynn ’90. He has three sons, the oldest in his third year at Harvard Law School; his middle son is a sophomore at at Old Dominion University; and his youngest is in middle school.