The youngest person ever appointed to the state Supreme Court, Jim Exum has had a stellar career, including serving eight years as the state's chief justice. Recently retired, the Greensboro resident has no plans for public life. He just wants to teach, write and ride his motorcycle.
It's a tiny town in eastern North Carolina, a place with one stoplight, a dozen or so stores downtown and a movie house that in 1950 was showing double features for 12 cents.
Down the street from the Capital Theater, there was Harper's Drug Store, with its three tables and soda fountain. The town's newspaper, the Standard Laconic, had offices nearby. Folks around town called it the ``Standard Lunatic.'This place was Snow Hill, the municipal hub of Greene County, home of the Snow Hill Yellow Jackets and the headquarters for Happy Jack Mange Medicine, a family-owned company known by its catchy phrase ``Ask For Happy Jack ... Your Dog Would.'
Jim Exum knows about Happy Jack. It's his family's business. As for Snow Hill, it's the spot just off N.C. 258 that he once called home.
``I found great advantages growing up in a small town,' Exum says. ``I think that what kids and children really need is to develop a sense of security and a sense of family so that they see that the world is all right, the world is OK, and that they have a place in it.
``If this can somehow be imbued in them, it gives them a good start.'
It did for Jim Exum.
High school valedictorian in a class of 60. Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. Graduate of New York University School of Law, one of the country's top law schools. State legislator and Superior Court judge from Guilford County.
And then, at a very early age, there was the pinnacle of the state's judicial system, the Supreme Court. Exum joined the court as an associate justice and later served as chief justice.
In January, after 20 years on the state's highest court, Exum stepped down from the $97,600-a-year position. He is 59.
During his two decades on the high court, Justice Exum became known for, among other things, his ability to uphold a death sentence despite personal objections to capital punishment. And though he himself was consistently successful at the polls, he took a very visible role in urging the state to change from electing to appointing judges.
Many consider Exum one of North Carolina's best legal minds. But now he wants to do something different - and that doesn't mean run for another office. He wants to teach, mediate, counsel, write and, of course, ride his BMW motorcycle cross-country to Montana.
That, people will tell you, is pure Jim Exum.
One Saturday night in January, in a packed ballroom at Greensboro's Koury Convention Center, more than 500 North Carolinians paid their respects to the retiring chief justice in addition to taking a few friendly jabs at the man many call ``Chief' or ``X.'
They talked about Exum's speeding tickets on his motorcycle, the bill he sponsored in the General Assembly to save the sea turtle and, of course, his father's mange medicine, which Exum rubbed into his scalp during his college days to stave off baldness.
That night, during this fund-raiser for the N.C. Supreme Court Historical Society, the speakers called Exum the ``biker judge' and presented him with a large, black telephone in the shape of a motorcycle.
Exum took it all good-naturedly.
He sat on the dais that night, wearing a sharp blue suit and a tie emblazoned with images of pink pigs. He relaxed beside his wife, Judy, smoked a big cigar and used it like a lance, playfully stabbing the air as 10 speakers poked fun at his idiosyncrasies and his thoughtful, energetic outlook on life.
And he laughed often, that lean-back-and-guffaw laugh that causes his salt-and-pepper forelock to fall boyishly over his forehead.
``It's been a great run for me being chief justice,' Exum told the crowd when the roasters were done. ``It's the greatest privilege a North Carolina lawyer can have, and certainly, it's been that way for me.'
Exum was first elected to the state Supreme Court in 1975, as a 39-year-old trial judge. On a seven-member bench where the average age was more than 60 years, he was the youngest by far, the youngest ever to serve on the court - a record he still holds.
In that 20-year run, Exum earned a reputation as a thorough researcher whose own philosophy only occasionally shone through his tightly reasoned judicial opinions.
That was especially true with cases involving compensation for employees injured or killed on the job.
In 1991, the state Supreme Court heard a case in which a worker had died in a trench cave-in at Research Triangle Park. The man's family claimed that the man's employer had ignored customary safety standards.
The court ruled in the family's favor. Exum wrote the landmark opinion, holding that a worker can sue for damages beyond the limits of workers' compensation when there is evidence that the employer should have known that its misconduct was ``substantially certain' to result in injury.
Many North Carolina lawyers call that decision the most important workers' compensation ruling in memory.
``Our laws are to be liberally construed in favor of the worker,' Exum said in a recent interview at his Greensboro home. ``It's ingrained in our law. So, as a judge you take those principles and go from there.'
Exum opposes the death penalty for moral and practical reasons, but has upheld it in many cases because it is the law of this state, whose constitutionality was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Capital punishment is just too expensive, Exum says. A capital case takes 10 times longer than any other case to get through the courts, costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of unnecessary dollars.
``I've always thought that the death penalty was not good public policy because it tends to brutalize society and cheapens human life,' Exum said.
``When an individual kills another individual, that's horrible and the state condemns it, and those people should be held accountable in the most severe way,' Exum said. ``As as state, though, we should value human life and not denigrate it.'
That belief turned Exum, a lifelong Democrat, into a lightning rod for political conservatives in 1986 when he ran for chief justice against Republican Rhoda Billings, an appointee of Republican Gov. Jim Martin.
A group calling itself Citizens for a Conservative Court battered Exum for his views on capital punishment, labeling him with the dreaded ``liberal' tag and claiming his judicial opinions were ``threatening the lives of so many of our children.'
More than eight years later, Exum still is bothered by that bitter campaign waged by the conservative group.
To Exum, the 1986 campaign emphasizes why judges should be appointed, not elected.
``What you have are special interest groups attacking judges like legislators, and the question is why not attack judges like the legislature and the executive branch?' Exum asks.
``Well, the answer is quite clear. They are the policy-setters, and judges decide cases on an individual basis, based on sound reasoning, good scholarship and neutral principles of law.
``It has nothing to do with partisan politics.'
This is the philosophy of a man whose baby brother likens him to Forrest Gump, the movie character who gained wealth and fame by living a simple life with simple rules.
Exum grew up in Snow Hill as the oldest of three boys. Their father, Jim Sr., raised championship beagles and concocted a medication during the Depression to keep his beagles from dying from mange, a contagious skin disease.
Exum's father later turned this medication into a successful business that he named after his top beagle, Happy Jack.
The three Exum boys grew up in a strict, religious household where chores were the norm and church attendance was mandatory.
``On the first of May, you took your shoes off and didn't put them back on until you went back to school,' said Bud Harper, one of Exum's childhood friends and now a Chapel Hill cardiologist.
Exum was the likable, lanky kid. He hunted, dug caves and made toad frog houses - a childhood game that consisted of burying your bare foot in mud and then pulling it out so as to leave an intact burrow.
He soon turned into the family's scholar.
By the time he left the seventh grade, Jim Exum had memorized the 23rd Psalm, the Ten Commandments, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the preambles of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
As he grew older, he got more involved in sports. He played football and basketball for the Snow Hill Yellow Jackets, while also editing the school newspaper and rising to the top of his class.
He earned a prestigious Morehead Scholarship, which meant an all-expense-paid four years at Chapel Hill.
But his academic prowess didn't prevent him from joining Sigma Nu, catching many movies at the old Carolina Theater and venturing to Hogan's Lake for a day of beer drinking.
Exum wore the cardigan sweaters his grandmother knitted him, although, as brother Joe puts it, they weren't considered ``cool.' Nor, for that matter, was the Happy Jack he rubbed into his scalp to keep his hair from falling out.
``Oh my gosh,' Exum would hear in the fraternity house back then. ``Exum has that mange medicine on his scalp and that hot towel around his head.'
Through it all, Exum hewed to the sky-is-the-limit attitude he had acquired in Snow Hill. He tried out for wrestling and basketball (Frank McGuire, the legendary basketball coach, once had to take him to the hospital because of an injury). At Chapel Hill he continued to excel academically, becoming president of the university's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
``He was not your run of the mill college student,' says George Ragsdale, a Sigma Nu fraternity brother who now practices law in Raleigh.
``One time I had a class with him in Milton. While the rest of us were trying to memorize and get out and find some cold beer, Exum was trying to figure out what Milton was trying to say, and understand what was being taught.
``You know not everyone was like that.'
After graduation, Exum left behind the tree-shaded campus of Chapel Hill and set out for the big time, New York City.
There, in the fall of 1957, he unpacked his four suitcases in a Greenwich Village apartment and matriculated at New York University Law School.
He recalls discovering a ``kaleidoscope of human activity' in New York City - not to mention great-tasting spaghetti and a love of opera.
His lilting Southern drawl caught people's attention. So did his intellect.
``I thought his thinking was very sound and very practical,' says Jon LaFaver, a Pennsylvania lawyer who roomed with Exum in law school.
``He did not latch onto a theoretical notion and carry that to the extreme. When talking to someone and a subject came up he questioned, he listened intently and then would respond and ask additional questions.'
For Exum, this time in New York revealed a new world of different races, different ethnicities and different lifestyles, from musicians performing on the sidewalk to men playing chess on permanent outdoor boards.
The effect crystallized what he first learned at home in Snow Hill and in the small St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, where he had played the pump organ as a youth.
``People are essentially the same,' Exum says.
``Far more things unite us than divide us. Rich or poor, Jewish or Muslim, black or white. We all have basically the same needs, the same wants because we're fundamentally God's children, brothers and sisters under one great umbrella. I've believed that my whole adult life.'
On that Saturday night two months ago at Greensboro's Koury Convention Center, Exum shook hand after hand of well-wishers as dinner broke up. As the crush of people grew in front of him, he smiled and shared stories with each of them. To him, it was a time to reflect on his nearly 30 years in public office in which he helped mold what he calls ``man's law.'
``God's law is to change the hearts of humankind,' Exum said. ``It and only it can do that.'
Exum will stay in Greensboro during his retirement, the city where he met his wife, Judy, on a blind date and began his law practice with Smith, Moore, Smith, Schell and Hunter (now Smith, Helms, Mulliss and Moore), one of the state's largest law firms.
McNeill Smith, the veteran Greensboro attorney who hired Exum, recalled: ``We had a case that took more than two weeks to try in Durham and Jim was indefatigable. He didn't quit at 4:30 p.m., 6 p.m. or even 8 o'clock, but he did insist on a workout at the Y. He did a wonderful job.'
``The chief chemist of the defendant wrote me afterward and said, 'Keep an eye on Jim Exum. He is going to be chief justice of North Carolina,' ' Smith said.
Many consider Exum's departure from the state's top court an intellectual blow. The Supreme Court loses a judge described as the court's deep thinker, a man with a practical sense of right and wrong that has its roots in the small town called Snow Hill.
``Jim's opinions had pure analytical reasoning and almost formal logic, and that was his strength,' said Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, who moved up to Exum's place on the bench. ``I think he has one of the best legal minds we will have in this generation because of his accurate legal analysis and original legal thought. His passing away from this court leaves a real void.'
Exum brushes off the compliment. ``All I can say is that I love the law. The legal profession, short of the sacred ministry, is the greatest profession of all. I worked hard at it because I get a great deal of personal satisfaction helping shape the laws of North Carolina.
``I'd just like it to be remembered that I left the system a little better than when I got into it.'
About two weeks ago, Exum was riding his motorcycle down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill when a car pulled out in front of him and he hit it. He was knocked unconscious.
He woke up 30 minutes later in the UNC hospital. Not long afterward his childhood friend, Bud Harper, showed up.
``Jim, you ought to stay off that motorcycle,' Harper told him. ``You're almost 60.'
Cracking a smile, Exum responded: ``I'll think about it.'
Again, people will tell you, that's pure Jim Exum.