March 01, 2015

Doing Justice to Our Ideals: My Second Season

Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson (ret.)

“I am Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a member of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.” For nearly seven years, I proudly recited that introduction. I had reached the pinnacle of my judicial career and was justly proud of North Carolina’s justice system and my active role in it.

An Improbable Path

As I reflect on my judicial career, I am profoundly struck by the improbability of my career path. I was born to an enlisted Army soldier and his homemaker wife, in Florence, South Carolina. My county of birth was less than 100 miles fromClarendon County, South Carolina, the site for the Briggs v. Elliott trial, a case about Clarendon schools that was eventually rolled into the historic Brown v. Board of Education. In the Briggs trial, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark provided expert testimony founded on their experiments using black and white dolls to study children’s attitudes about race to support the assertion of the psychological damage of segregated schooling on black children. I was born four months before Brown v. Board of Education, 10 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 11 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

My parents could not have predicted that I would one day enter the legal profession and serve on the highest court of a former Confederate state. The improbability is not due to a lack of ambition for their oldest child or a lack of intellectual ability to succeed. But the times were different. African Americans and women were severely limited in the career options available. As others have described it, the only professional options available to African Americans during the era of my birth were “teacher and preacher.” My family had a fair share of them.

My late father would have proudly pounded his chest as he witnessed the achievements of his daughter—Mother does a good imitation. My parents sowed the seeds of my professional achievements when they courageously departed rural South Carolina and embarked on a career in the United States Army. The quality education afforded the dependents of servicemen, the life lessons learned through military service, the regular interactions with different races of people, and the exposure to travel prepared me for the day when a greater equality of opportunity would exist in our nation.

And Now: the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Whether one describes my present stage of life as a “new path,” “second career,” or “second season of service,” I am there. I retired from the Supreme Court of North Carolina in December 2012. My retirement ended 28 years of judicial service. It seems like just yesterday that I began as a trial judge, progressed to the intermediate appellate court, and then reached the high-water mark of my judicial career—service on North Carolina’s highest court. I have authored approximately 600 appellate opinions and participated in deciding 1,100 more appellate cases. Resolving legal disputes through legal analysis, research, and writing has been my professional life. Five elections, including two statewide campaigns, have resulted in a wealth of legal, judicial, and political experience. But I recognized in the months leading up to December 2012 that the time had come for me to depart the court. As I indicated in my letter to the governor, “There is a time and season for all things.”

Upon my announcement of my decision to retire from the bench, I was cautioned by friends against rushing into new endeavors. “Take your time! You will never again be at this place in your life.” They assured me that more opportunities would come and I should “judiciously” choose among them. Each reminded me that fewer days lay before me than behind me but that there was much important work to be done. I should not hesitate to be the one to do it. I appreciated the excellent words then, and I can be heard echoing the admonishments to other retiring colleagues. I largely followed the counsel of my friends.

On July 24, 2014, President Barack Obama appointed me to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, designating me as vice-chair in January 2015. The eight-member Commission is charged by law to advise the president and Congress on civil rights matters. Established in 1957 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as an independent, bipartisan agency, the Commission also issues federal civil rights enforcement reports, holds public briefings, provides complaint referral services, conducts hearings, and publishes studies on civil rights issues. Many policy questions in our state and federal government include the research of prior reports drafted by the Commission. The Commission has a distinguished, storied history that includes actions that directly led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. See, for example, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Voting Rights Act: The First Months (1965), available at, which explains that during the time of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Commission made it its mission to investigate and continue to monitor alleged deprivations of voting rights. Most notably, the Commission asserted that the federal government must affirmatively expand African-American voting by establishing a voter registration program.

A Chance to Give Back

I lived during the birth and the historic achievements of the Commission, but I was of such a tender age that I did not understand or appreciate the magnitude of the struggles playing out for my benefit. So I am a grateful beneficiary of the civil rights struggles. My service on the Commission allows me to give back in some measure to those who worked and even died for me. And it allows me to do for others what was done for me—build a bridge and pave a path. With hindsight and a lifetime of professional experience, I now have an opportunity to participate in and impact the discussion of civil rights policy in this country.

The Mission

Part of my mission is to explore complex civil rights issues that America faces today. I do so by developing proposals for in-depth investigations on specific civil rights matters under Commission jurisdiction. I then participate in briefings in which the Commission gathers information from experts in the field on the topic at hand. Finally, I propose findings and recommendations for both statutory and briefing reports that will be disseminated to the public.

Recent briefings of the Commission have included investigations on protecting the civil rights of our veterans and service members, on the nature and extent of racial disparity in the application of stand your ground laws, and on the state of civil rights in immigration detention facilities. Future briefings include an examination of workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans; the impact of select, federal financial aid programs on minority student enrollment at bachelor-degree-granting colleges and universities; and policing practices and prosecution of police deadly force.

I have been asked why service on the Commission appeals to me and why I want to serve. I have repeatedly stated that I believe in government and the good that government can effect in the lives of its citizens. Beyond that explanation, my current work is similar to my former life as an appellate judge. With the aid of a special assistant, I now must conduct legal and policy research to identify civil rights issues to bring to the Commission. Thus, I am drawing upon the skills of listening, researching, writing, and debating that were honed during my 28 years of judicial service. I research to gain a broad understanding of civil rights issues at hand. I carefully listen to panel experts, who debate causes and solutions to such issues. I seek to ask key questions to gather information and to propel the analysis of the civil rights issues. Finally, I write statements that summarize my understanding and opinion of civil rights issues.

The Work to Be Done

What an exciting time to serve on the Commission! As civil rights issues once believed resolved are again encountered and as new civil rights issues emerge, I have the privilege of participating in the policy discussions and of influencing the policy direction. Many civil rights issues remain unresolved and additional work must be done to ensure that our nation lives out its creed of justice and equality for all. I am blessed to be able to continue in public service. Some have described retirement as an opportunity to choose exactly what you want to do. My “second act” allows me to do just that!

Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson (ret.)

Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson (ret.) served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina from 2006 to 2012. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed her to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and on January 30, 2015, she was elevated to the position of Vice Chair. In 2014, Justice Timmons-Goodson also received a Master of Judicial Studies degree from the Duke University Law School. Prior to her tenure on the Supreme Court of North Carolina, she worked as a prosecutor, a legal services staff attorney, and from 1984–2005, a judge on North Carolina district and intermediate appellate courts.