Ten stories from North Carolina

by John O'Brien |
Aug. 20, 2010, 6:00am

North Carolina was first in flight, and it's now the first state to be the focus of one of our "Ten..." lists. In a break from our usual Friday format, we present 10 stories from North Carolina attorneys general and supreme court justices.

Burley Mitchell may have served four years as supreme court chief justice and 17 years on the court total, but he dropped out of high school at 15 years old. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps but was booted when his age was discovered. Mitchell put his plan to serve his country on hold until he was 18, when he joined the Navy. After his service, he earned his bachelor's degree from North Carolina State University and his law degree from the University of North Carolina.

Former Chief Justice Henry Frye had graduated from college, was accepted to UNC Law School and had been an officer in the U.S. Air Force in 1956, but he was told he had not passed the literacy test required to register to vote. "This seemed strange to me," he said. Later in his life, as a legislator, he worked to abolish the literacy test. In 1999, he became the state's first African-American chief justice.

G.K. Butterfield spent a short time earlier this century on the Supreme Court and has since become a member of Congress, but he nearly had a son-in-law with an equally powerful voice. His daughter Valeisha was engaged to rapper Game, who has released two albums that have debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Their engagement was called off in 2006 after his 2005 debut album, "The Documentary," sold more than 5 million copies.

Mike Easley spent eight years as attorney general and eight years as governor but only a few laps as a NASCAR driver before he slammed into a wall. In 2003, he was at a charity event at Charlotte's Lowe's Motor Speedway when he sent Jimmie Johnson's car into the wall at 120 mph. Not injured, he later took Terry Labonte's car for a more successful spin.

Lacy Thornburg preceded Easley as attorney general. He's also currently a federal judge in Asheville with a stretch of highway named after him. A stretch of U.S. Highway 23 from the Jackson County line to exit 85 is called "Judge Lacy H. Thornburg Highway." In 2007, state Department of Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett said both Thornburg and the highway "serve as a lifeline to the rest of the state."

And before Thornburg was the state's attorney general, it was Rufus Edmisten who held the post. Edmisten had worked for U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, in the early 1970s. It was Edmisten who was tasked with serving the subpoena on President Richard Nixon. "There must have been 400 reporters there that day, Edmisten told WRAL in 2002. "The Capitol police formed a wedge on Pennsylvania Avenue as I left and escorted me down there."

Ervin, meanwhile, became a supreme court justice after his first stint in Congress. His brother Joseph Wilson, a member of the House of Representatives, committed suicide on Christmas in 1945, and Ervin filled out his term. In 1954 he was appointed to the Senate to replace Clyde Hoey, who also died in office. Not only did he chair the Watergate committee, but Ervin also worked on an investigative committee that probed Sen. Joe McCarthy.

Earlier this month, former Supreme Court Justice James Wynn was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. He had been appointed by President Barack Obama last year and faced no resistance during the confirmation process. However, in 1999, he was nominated to the same court by President Bill Clinton, and his nomination never received a hearing. His nomination was blocked by Sen. Jesse Helms, who said the court did not need any more judges.

Most politicians who serve in the military do so before they begin their public service career. That wasn't the case with Matt Whitaker Ransom, the state's attorney general from 1852-55 who later became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He saw action in some of the most important battles of the war, like Antietam and Fredericksburg. There is an organization in Weldon which honors the Confederate legacy named "The General Matt W. Ransom Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp #861."

Hutchins Burton was an attorney general, governor and Congressman, but he died in 1836 and possibly became something else -- a ghost. Wikipedia cites the book "Virginia's Ghosts and Others," which says his wife and father-in-law claim to have seen him coming down a hill on a white horse the night he passed away in a hotel on his way to Texas. Three weeks after he died, she received news of his death and realized it happened the very hour she says she saw the ghost.

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