Robinson Everett: The Citizen-Lawyer Ideal Lives On

By Levi, David F. | Duke Law Journal, April 2010 | Go to article overview
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Robinson Everett: The Citizen-Lawyer Ideal Lives On


Levi, David F., Duke Law Journal


With titles like "The Lost Lawyer," modern writers about the legal profession have amassed a literature of mourning that grieves the demise of the lawyer-statesman and the citizen-lawyer. (1) According to much of this literature--with the rise of the large national and international law firm as well as the increase in specialization and the focus on the firm as a business--the pipeline from law to politics and law to public service, so critical from the time of the Founding through the early twentieth century, was severed for once and all. It is said that we shall never again see the likes of the little giant or the rail splitter or the Atticus Finches of small town America--lawyers, statesmen, and civic leaders. These writers obviously never met Judge and Professor Robinson O. Everett.

Until the day that he died last year, Professor Everett, known affectionately as Robbie, was the consummate lawyer-citizen, constantly thinking of ways in which he could improve the justice system and make his community a better place for all to live. He was full of projects and plans. Sometimes he acted through his role as a professor, sometimes as a judge, sometimes as a citizen, but always as an esteemed member of the Bar. Last year, Duke Law School's graduation speaker, Judge David Sentelle, said to our students that now that they were about to become lawyers, they could no longer muse about something gone awry: "they really ought to do something about that," because as law graduates, they were the "they" responsible to act and to keep our democracy operating smoothly and fairly. Robbie knew this well and never called upon others to do what he could do himself, although he frequently called upon others to join him. Whether through his tireless commitments to students, faculty, and staff at Duke Law School; his service as the Chief Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces; his involvement with bar associations, civic groups, and professional organizations; and his assistance and counsel to the countless individuals he guided along life's path, Professor Everett took responsibility for the world around him not just as any caring citizen or neighbor might do, but as a person who had the good fortune and privilege to be a lawyer. He was living proof that the citizen-lawyer is and can be alive and well for all who have the character and determination to follow in that great tradition.

Professor Everett's career in the law would seem predestined. He was born on March 18, 1928, in Durham, North Carolina, the only child to the loving union of two local lawyers of great distinction-Kathrine R. Everett, one of the earliest women graduates of UNC Law School, and Reuben O. Everett, one of Duke University's first law students. (2) Raised in a close-knit family, Robbie often recalled as one of his proudest moments the day in 1954 when he and his parents were sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court Bar together.

Professor Everett graduated from high school in Durham at the age of fifteen. He then attended Harvard College and received his bachelor's degree in Government, magna cure laude, at the ripe old age of nineteen. Three years later, he graduated, magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School. Professor Everett returned to his native Durham to practice law and began teaching at Duke Law School soon thereafter. At twenty-two years old, he was the youngest person ever to teach at Duke Law. And as he liked to joke, he "must have been a good teacher" because he became a full-time member of the faculty in 1957 and gained tenure in 1967.

After just one year of teaching at Duke Law, and with the encouragement of his mother, Professor Everett enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1951 during the Korean War and went on to a distinguished career in the military. Upon his release from active duty, he served as commissioner of the United States Court of Military Appeals and remained a member of the Air Force Reserve until his retirement in 1978 as a colonel in the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

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