10/10/12 — Fourth generation Ervin seeking seat on court

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Fourth generation Ervin seeking seat on court

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on October 10, 2012 1:46 PM

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Sam Ervin IV

For many politicians, name recognition is a key ingredient for success.

And in North Carolina, if your name is Sam Ervin, a lot of people might think that would be enough to get you noticed.

But Sam Ervin IV, who is running for a seat on the state Supreme Court against incumbent Paul Newby, says that because his grandfather, the late Sen. Sam Ervin, has been gone from the political scene for so long, the name doesn't mean anything to voters who weren't around when the elder Ervin oversaw the Watergate hearings in the early 1970s that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

That includes most people under the age of 50, Ervin noted.

"I certainly don't go around saying, 'Vote for me, I'm Sen. Sam Ervin's grandson," the younger Ervin said on a campaign stop in Goldsboro.

Still, the name carries a lot of weight with older voters. The elder Ervin earned national recognition while presiding over the Watergate hearings. His "country lawyer" drawl and expert knowledge of the Constitution endeared him to a generation of Americans.

But Ervin says his grandfather's name is a "mixed blessing."

"He was a strong-minded individual. And he took a stand on a lot of issues. Some people didn't like them all," Ervin said.

Currently a member of the state Court of Appeals, Ervin said he is running, not on his grandfather's name, but on his own record of service. He practiced law in his hometown of Morganton for 18 years, working both criminal and civil cases.

He argued more than a dozen cases before the state Supreme Court during that time and between 30 and 40 before the state Court of Appeals.

In 1999, Ervin was appointed to the North Carolina Utilities Commission by former Gov. Jim Hunt and was re-appointed by former Gov. Mike Easley in 2007.

A graduate of Davidson College and Harvard Law School, Ervin ran for a seat on the state Court of Appeals in 2008 and won.

Now, he is seeking a seat on the state's highest court and says his experience on the Utilities Commission gives him a good background in dealing with the types of cases that often reach the appellate court system.

"Working with the Utilities Commission was good training for the appellate court," he said. "It was a good way to get prepared for complicated litigation. You have got to be able to take highly technical information and make it clear. The orders we write look a lot like those from the appellate court. It's pretty good training."

As one of 15 members of the state Court of Appeals, Ervin wrote 100 to 120 opinions a year for the court. He said he believes the opinions he wrote for the court "show I can handle difficult cases."

The Court of Appeals reviews the proceedings from local trials for errors of law or legal procedure. The justices decide only questions of law, not questions of fact. The same is true of the nine-member Supreme Court.

The opinions he has written for the Court of Appeals also show his impartiality, he said. Ervin noted that North Carolina's Legislature has decided to make judicial races non-partisan in an attempt to keep politics out of the judicial system as much as possible. He agrees with the principle.

"Most people would tell you that I'm down the middle on my decisions," Ervin said. "There needs to be some credibility in judicial races, because of the nature of the job. The system is more important than the ideology of any of the participants.

"The Legislature decided that judges are not really political officials," he said. "To me, my job is not to judge whether a law is good or not."

Ervin said he has tried to keep politics out of the race he is in but he questioned whether his opponent truly feels the same way. The incumbent, Newby, has at times "politicized a race that shouldn't be politicized," he said.

That, he said, could ultimately lead the public to perceive judicial races the same as they do races for the legislature or other lawmaking bodies.

"That will undermine public confidence in an independent judicial system," he said.