(Editor’s Note: Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this report is drawn from a Sept. 10, 2009, Sylva Herald story written on the occasion of Judge Thornburg’s retirement.)
Lacy Thornburg of Webster, who will turn 90 in December, was born in Charlotte, served in the U.S. Army for one year and was educated at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1952 and his law degree in 1954. During his 55-year legal career, Thornburg was a small-town lawyer, state legislator, Superior Court judge, state attorney general and federal judge.
Thornburg, who stepped down from his seat on the U.S. District Court bench almost 10 years ago – on Aug. 31, 2009 – said then that he was choosing to retire because of his age and a desire for some free time. “It’s time to just relax,” he said from his porch overlooking the Tuckaseigee River. “I’ve not been able to keep up with my hunting and fishing.”
A lifelong Democrat, Thornburg added one more reason for the timing of his decision to leave his federal judgeship. “It’s a good time to step down with our new president in office,” he said. “It’s a new day.” Thornburg was referring to the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, making the point that by retiring in 2009 he was ensuring that a Democratic president would appoint his successor to the federal bench.
Local historian George Frizzell said Thornburg has made contributions and been influential on state, regional and national levels.
“I admire Judge Thornburg’s career and dedication,” Frizzell said, adding that it’s difficult to summarize decades of service in a few sentences. “It’s easy to overlook the impact of an individual’s career when it took place in the recent past, but Judge Thornburg is a Jackson County resident who achieved prominence in both state and federal positions for his political and judicial service. Known for his commitment to Western North Carolina, his decisions had state and federal significance,” Frizzell said.
According to a June, 29, 2009, report in The Legal Intelligencer, written when Thornburg announced his retirement, attorneys who argued cases in Thornburg’s courtroom held the judge in high regard. “Judge Thornburg was always just so courteous to everyone in the court process, but there was never any mistake about who was in charge,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Miller, who prosecuted many cases before Thornburg. “He was always firmly in control of the courtroom, but he never did it with a heavy hand.”
Asheville attorney Joe McGuire argued a number of cases before Thornburg. “He was very much a gentleman, but he ran a very tight ship,” McGuire said. “The legacy he is leaving is one of being very tough but very fair. He was extremely hardworking, had high expectations of counsel and was a legal scholar with great common sense.”
Thornburg grew up on a farm in Mecklenburg County and was fresh out of the University of North Carolina’s law school when he came to Sylva in 1954 to practice with the late David Hall, the only Jackson County native ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Thornburg got the job in a roundabout way, he said. His roommate at Carolina was Zeb Alley, and Alley’s mother, Edith, was the secretary to the superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Edith Alley was trying to line up a job with Hall for her son, but Hall wasn’t willing to wait another year for Zeb to graduate, Thornburg said.
“I was a year ahead of Zeb, and when Edith saw that he wasn’t going to get the job, she recommended me,” he said.
While Thornburg was interviewing with Hall, whose law office was on Main Street in the building that for years housed Vance Hardware, then-Sylva Police Chief George Evans put a ticket on his car, Thornburg said. Hall and Thornburg practiced together for several years before Hall was elected to Congress in 1958; Hall died in 1960 before completing his first term, and Roy Taylor was appointed to take his place.
Though he had only been in Jackson County for six years at the time, Thornburg threw his hat into the political ring in 1960, running against Jackson County native Marcellus Buchanan for a seat in the state House of Representatives. Thornburg won that battle and served in Raleigh until 1967. According to Thornburg, he wasn’t a political novice when he decided to challenge Buchanan. “I’d been very active in politics before coming to Jackson County,” he said. “It was just a natural thing to do.”
Thornburg was elected to the Legislature three times when his district included only Jackson County but lost to Charles Taylor when Jackson and Transylvania counties were combined. “I never lost Jackson County, but I lost Transylvania by more than enough for him to win,” Thornburg said.
He returned to his law practice until he was appointed a special Superior Court judge later in 1967. After a judgeship for the 30th District was created, Thornburg ran for that seat and held it without opposition until he resigned in 1983.
The political rivalry between him and Buchanan, who served for years as district attorney – or solicitor, as Buchanan preferred to be called – for the 30th judicial district, caused only temporary hard feelings, Thornburg said. “After Marcellus was elected solicitor, we served many years together,” Thornburg said. “We got along fine and were good friends.”
Thornburg’s departure from the Superior Court bench came in response to his decision to enter statewide politics. Initially announcing a bid for governor, he opted to run for attorney general instead. “There were several candidates, including Rufus Edmisten and Eddie Knox,” Thornburg said. “The suggestion was made that I run for attorney general, and the others indicated I’d have their support. It worked out really well – I had two good terms.”
Thornburg was North Carolina’s attorney general from 1985 through 1993. Though most political observers believed he could have kept that job as long as he wanted it, Thornburg chose instead to run for governor in 1992 only to be surprised by the candidacy of Jim Hunt, who had served as governor from 1977-85.
“I did not know Jim Hunt was going to run,” Thornburg said. “The governor while I was there (Jim Martin) was a Republican. I thought if Jim Hunt wasn’t running, and Jim Martin couldn’t, I’d make a run. But when Jim Hunt got in the race, he had the organization and financial backing, and as attorney general I had clashed with some folks.”
After Hunt defeated Thornburg in the Democratic primary, the former attorney general turned his energy to helping get Bill Clinton elected president.
After the election, Thornburg was appointed by Clinton to serve on the National Indian Gaming Commission, a post he held during the time the Eastern Band’s tribal leaders were seeking approval for casino operations in Cherokee.
President Clinton selected Thornburg for a seat on the federal bench in 1995, and Thornburg’s Senate confirmation came quickly, even though both of North Carolina’s senators at the time – Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth – were Republicans.
“I had known both of them as Democrats,” Thornburg said. “When my name was sent over, both of them immediately endorsed me. When my hearing came up, both attended and supported me.”
Before he was confirmed, Thornburg said he had to undergo FBI and American Bar Association checks.
“I got good marks, and it was smooth sailing from then on,” Thornburg said of his March 1995 appointment to the U.S. District Court in Asheville, adding that he was the first North Carolina federal judge to come from west of Balsam Gap.
Looking back over his early years as an attorney, Thornburg described one case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was in the early 1960s when Duke Power (now Duke Energy) decided to buy Nantahala Power & Light Co. According to Thornburg, Duke’s rates were considerably higher than Nantahala’s, and Henry Truett and some other people from Bryson City asked him to represent them. Thornburg went to Raleigh to fight the Duke purchase, but the N.C. Utility Commission ruled in Duke’s favor.
Thornburg appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court, arguing that Duke’s rates were excessive, and the state Supreme Court found that Duke couldn’t buy NP&L, he said. Then Duke appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the N.C. Supreme Court and said that blocking the sale would interrupt interstate commerce.
“(Duke) won their lawsuit on the basis of interstate commerce,” Thornburg said. Though Duke did not buy Nantahala in the 1960s, it did buy the small power company in 1988, continuing to operate it as a separate company until 2001 when NP&L operations were absorbed into Duke.
Thornburg also described a landmark case, Thornburg v. Gingles, he took to the U.S. Supreme Court while he was attorney general. Oral arguments in that case were made in December 1985, and the ruling came down in June 1986. According to Thornburg, Gingles was a voting rights case and had to do with the legality of multi-member districts.
“The Legislature had drawn the district, and it was my responsibility as attorney general to defend that decision,” he said. “It came out a mixed bag. The Supreme Court gave a split victory and assessed each side half of the cost.”
The Sept. 6, 2007, Sylva Herald reports that the town of Webster declared Aug. 29, 2007, as “Lacy Thornburg Day,” timing the local recognition to coincide with a ceremony marking the naming of a portion of a local highway (U.S. 23/74 from Balsam to Exit 85) for Thornburg.
According to the late Conrad Burrell, then a N.C. Department of Transportation board member, the highway dedication was a token of appreciation for someone who has done a great deal for Western North Carolina. “In all of his years of service, Lacy has always done what he felt is best for the citizens in the western part of the state,” Burrell said. Then-Webster Mayor Steve Gray spoke on behalf of the town, saying “Lacy has always proudly proclaimed Webster as his home, and we’re happy to honor him.”
While all the speakers praised Thornburg and his accomplishments, the judge himself was quick to thank the people of Jackson County for the support they have given him. “I’ve been mightily blessed,” Thornburg said. “You folks looked after me and took me in kindly.”
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.