A Conversation with Judge Bob Orr

A Conversation With Bob Orr

The Carolina Political Review sat down with Institute of Politics fellow Robert F. “Bob” Orr to talk about his career of service and his hopes for the future of American politics. From his current position as a law professor and fellow, Orr looked back on a varied career and emphasized the ethical responsibility of the next generation of civically-minded citizens.

 Judge Orr at one of his Fellows Seminars talking with a student.

Judge Orr at one of his Fellows Seminars talking with a student.

“We’re looking at folks like y’all to carry the ball in many different ways” Orr acknowledged. Whether in the public or private sector, Americans are “trying to find collaborative solutions to pretty tough issues.”

Orr has a unique perspective as a former journalist, soldier, judge, political candidate and current academic. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and grew up in Hendersonville, North Carolina; Orr arrived at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1964 to study journalism. “I was a radio/TV/Motion Picture Major. I was going to be a sports announcer.”

But a journalism internship with WSOC landed him in Raleigh with the North Carolina General Assembly, and he began working far from any athletic field: “I covered Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Klan rallies, Martin Luther King. It was an incredible education... I got interested in law and politics doing that work at the General Assembly.”

After graduation in 1968, Orr enlisted in the United States Army. He was stationed in Germany and worked as a motion picture photographer for two years. “We were the photography unit, so it was really a pretty cool assignment. We’d film all sorts of military activities all over Europe... we did NATO war games inside the Arctic Circle, Norway, we did Patton Memorial Day in Luxembourg...”

Although serving abroad, Orr still saw signs of home in unlikely places. At Checkpoint Charlie, Orr glanced at a section of the Berlin Wall and saw “CAROLINA- Go Tar Heels!” scrawled in blue paint across the cement.

Orr left the Army as Specialist, 5th class, for North Carolina and enrolled in UNC’s School of Law in 1972. He practiced law for 11 years and eventually came to help Jim Martin during his 1984 campaign for North Carolina governor, after which Martin appointed him to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. “I was the liquor czar” Orr said with a laugh. In 1986 Martin called again on Orr, this time appointing him to a seat on the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

 Judge Orr with his guest, President Margaret Spellings.

Judge Orr with his guest, President Margaret Spellings.

In 1988 Orr again ran for a seat on the Court of Appeals, an experience he describes as “the most brilliant campaign in the history of [North Carolina]”. Orr had to straddle a moderate Republican, bipartisan line by winning endorsements from left-leaning organizations such as the NCAE and NC League of Conservation Voters. This approach proved effective, and Orr became the first Republican judge to win a state-wide election since 1896.

Orr served North Carolina on the Court of Appeals from 1988-1994, and then as a justice on the North Carolina State Supreme Court from 1994-2004.

After retiring from the court, Orr maintained a busy schedule at Carolina, saying “UNC has changed dramatically, mostly for the better.” The campus has diversified dramatically and his former radio/TV/motion picture concentration has morphed into the cutting-edge UNC School of Media and Journalism. On campus, Orr teaches a class on state constitutional law at UNC’s School of Law and is finishing a stint as an IOP fellow. It’s been inspiring, he commented, noting that his students—both in the IOP and the School of Law—are the future leaders of state and federal politics.

Despite this optimism, Orr still recognized the current state of party polarization as a negative in national affairs:

“The interesting thing about [the Tea Party movement] is that it ended up tilting the party structure a lot further to the right than is reflective of a lot of Republicans...I blame, to a certain extent, the media, and the social media phenomenon.”

“You can’t say [the Republican party is] the party of family values and have Donald Trump as your iconic president. There are a lot of ethical issues percolating in [politics], whether it’s conflicts of interest, whether it’s adhering to your principals versus ‘who’s greasing my palm’, to local, state-wide issues.”

Orr observed these changes first-hand as a 2016 delegate to the Republican National Convention, where he supported John Kasich. He describes himself as a “mountain Republican from the old days” and continues to support moderate politics and wilderness conservation efforts (he considers his most interesting job to be his stint on the National Parks Service Advisory Board, and frequently returns to the North Carolina mountains on his weekends off).

These steadfast beliefs lead him to leave the RNC early, rather than cast a vote for Donald Trump. “I thought that he would be detrimental to the country, and detrimental to the Republican party, and he has more than proven me correct” Orr maintains. Although he faced pressure from party leaders to fall in line and change his vote, Orr held his position and did not support the nomination.

Now, Orr is contemplating his legacy. “It’s sometimes surreal. This is my 50th reunion year [at UNC].” He adds, laughing, that he’s “too damn old” to join the crowds of students running around campus and prefers the solace of the mountains.

For those considering a career in government, Orr stresses the importance of ethical decision- making in politics and the law: “While we certainly want bright, talented people in politics and engaged in politics, I want the people who are morally grounded, understanding what is right and what is wrong and understanding the impact on their fellow citizens.”

This sense of responsibility for one’s fellow man is a testament to Orr’s life-long focus on responsible decision-making. Through a career of service, one outdoor enthusiast, sports-lover and lawyer has managed to carve a path for the next generation of ethical Tar Heel leadership. 

 Judge Orr at an early Fellows Seminar.

Judge Orr at an early Fellows Seminar.