Longtime Federal Court Judge Richard Voorhees wants to make one thing clear. He is not retiring and a Gazette profile story is not to be a "retirement" story.
"We can call it a 'cutting back' story," said Voorhees, 76, during a relaxed interview in his downtown Charlotte office, the windows of which overlook the outfield of the home of the Charlotte Knights, BB&T Ballpark. A steady September rain pelted down outside as Voorhees spoke, setting the tone for a mellow and reflective look back at his long career.
"I have gone on 'senior status' for an indefinite period," Voorhees explained. "That means I have a lot more control over my obligations, my docket is reduced considerably, and I am basically able to decide just how much I want to work."
A native of Syracuse in central New York, Voorhees moved to North Carolina in 1953 when his father, who worked for Western Electric, was transferred to Winston-Salem. In the Tobacco City, Vorhees was a football standout on a state championship team at R.J. Reynolds High School, where his coach was the legendary Shirley "Red" Wilson, who went on to head collegiate coaching positions, first at Elon and then at Duke.
When a Gazette reporter pointed out that Voorhees' tall, slender frame seemed better suited for basketball than football, the judge laughed and said, "Basketball was not the sport of choice for young men in Winston-Salem at that time. Plus it was a great opportunity to play under Coach Wilson."
Voorhees' outstanding work on the gridiron at R.J. Reynolds earned him a full scholarship to Davidson College, which was then in the Southern Conference. The judge majored in French while at Davidson, a choice which was tied directly to his enlistment in the JROTC program there. The plan had been for him to be commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army upon graduation in the spring of 1963 and then be posted to France.
French President Charles de Gaulle thwarted that plan, however, when he unexpectedly decided to withdraw French military forces from participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Instead of Europe, Voorhees was instead sent to South Korea for 13 months. Returning to the United States, he then served an additional nine months at XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters at Fort Bragg in eastern North Carolina.
As his active-duty term neared its end, Voorhees began to contemplate his future. A life-long interest in politics and political science led him to seek a law degree at UNC Chapel Hill's School of Law. Although his time there, from 1965 to 1968, coincided with an era of social unrest and protest across the nation, the Carolina campus was relatively tranquil during Vorhees' time there.
Following his graduation, Voorhees decided to join the Gastonia law firm of Garland, Alala, Bradley and Gray. It was from the firm's senior partner, James B. Garland, that he learned the finer points of practicing law in a small city. "He was such a superlative gentleman and an absolutely great mentor to me," Voorhees said of Garland. "He was the perfect guide during my early years in practice."
Like most attorneys in smaller cities, Voorhees found that specialization was impossible and he was instead required to become a "generalist," one who could handle any type of civil or criminal case.
In 1980, Voorhees decided to establish his own firm and spent the next eight years practicing in the fields of family, real estate, estate planning, and corporate law while also engaging in both civil and criminal litigation. In 1987, however, the process began which would take him from private practice to the federal bench.
The process started in Washington, D.C., when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger announced his plans to retire. President Ronald Reagan then nominated Justice William Rehnquist to move up to chief justice and Judge Antonin Scalia to be elevated from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court. Judge David Sentelle, in turn, was tabbed by Reagan to move up from the federal district court in western North Carolina to Scalia's position.
U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms then recommended that Voorhees be nominated by Reagan to fill Sentelle's post. Reagan acted on Helms' request and tabbed Voorhees for the federal district court vacancy.
"Sen. Helms had learned that I was a conservative-oriented individual," Voorhees said of Helms' recommendation. "He knew that I supported the Constitution, the original understanding of the role of the Constitution."
The approval process for all of these positions took longer than expected because senate Democrats, hopeful that a Democrat would be elected to the White House in November of 1988, were not overly enthused about expediting any of the appointments. The pieces to the puzzle eventually fell into place, however, and Voorhees was commissioned as a federal judge for North Carolina's Western District on Oct. 17, 1988.
"I had reservations about leaving private practice," Voorhees recalled. "I loved the law and knew I would miss the relationships with my clients. But I was honored that Sen. Helms and President Reagan had the trust in me to appoint me to the position."
Years of Service
As he enters his time of "senior status," Voorhees is the longest serving judge in the Western District since 1927. Over the years he has found that, "working with people in the judicial branch is a wonderful experience. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy the give and the take of the courtroom. I enjoy being a part of the process of justice."
Although he plans to spend more time with his two grandchildren, put in more hours riding one of his three motorcycles, and spent more afternoons out on his boat, Voorhees has no plans to move from "senior status" to full retirement. "I'm just not ready for that," he said.
To emphasize his plan to continue working, the judge pointed out his office window to the left-field scoreboard which blocks from his view a good portion of the BB&T Ballpark infield.
"We're going to be building an annex right there," Voorhees said, pointing to what is now a parking lot adjacent to the Federal Courthouse. "I will be moving over there when it is completed and I'll be on an upper floor. Hopefully, I'll be able to see over the scoreboard."
Bill Poteat may be reached at 704-869-1855.