Guest Post: Hon. Scott Silliman “A Tribute to Judge Robinson O. Everett”

Today’s post starts a series of essays related to the just-completed Center on Law, Ethics and National Security’s (LENS) 25th Anniversary National Security Law ConferenceIt was a spectacular, sold-out event that featured many terrific speakers and panelists, but there is no better place to start than with the Conference’s tribute to the Center’s founder, the late Judge Robinson O. Everett

This wonderful tribute is by the Hon. Scott Silliman, Deputy Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review, and the Director emeritus of LENS.

“A Tribute to Judge Robinson O. Everett”


Hon. Scott Silliman

Judge Scott Silliman

It’s an honor to be able to participate in this tribute to a great man who was the founder of our Center.  Before I begin, though, I’d like to recognize his three sons who are here with us this afternoon…Rob, Greg and Luke…two of them actually studied under me in a national security law course over at UNC Law School many years ago.  

There have been many before me who have spoken about the tremendous talents and abilities of the late Judge Robinson O. Everett as a professor at Duke Law School, of the high esteem in which he was held by those of us who were his faculty colleagues, and of his love and ceaseless support for his thousands of students throughout the years.  I want to share a personal perspective of Robinson, and how this Center on Law, Ethics and National Security–his center–came into being; but first, a few words about the man we honor today. 

Robbie, as he was known to all, was born here in Durham, the only son of two very prominent and distinguished attorneys.  He graduated from high school in Durham at the age of 15, and then attended Harvard College and received his bachelor’s degree in Government, magna cum laude, when he was only 19.  Three years later, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.  Judge Everett returned to Durham to practice law and began teaching at Duke Law School shortly after that, being at the age of 22 the youngest person ever to teach at Duke Law. 

He was also a veteran, and intensely proud of it.  He served with distinction as a judge advocate in the United States Air Force during the Korean War, and then stayed in the Air Force Reserve until he retired in the grade of colonel in 1978.  In tribute to that service, he was given military honors at his burial in Fayetteville.  A general officer commanded the honor-guard detail—a very unusual occurrence and one that was specifically approved in Washington by the Air Force Chief of Staff.  The officer commanding the honor guard detail was Air Force Brigadier General Steven Lepper, a 1984 graduate of Duke Law School and one of Robbie’s former students. 

Judge Everett was instrumental in the shaping and development of military justice, the congressionally enacted system for dealing with criminal offenses committed by our men and women in uniform.

Upon leaving active duty with the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Department in 1953, he was hired as a commissioner to Judge Paul Brosman, one of the three judges selected by President Truman to comprise the new United States Court of Military Appeals under the 1951 Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). 

Three years later, Robbie authored one of the first authoritative textbooks on military justice.   In 1961, he became counsel to a joint Senate Armed Services–Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin from North Carolina.         

The following year, this subcommittee held hearings that included a general assessment of military justice under the UCMJ after eleven years of operation.   Judge Everett’s association with and influence upon Senator Ervin eventually led to the Senator’s heavy involvement in a major course correction of the military justice system, the Military Justice Act of 1968, which greatly improved the system and made it inherently more fair and credible. 

In the 1970s, tension existed between the service Judge Advocates General and the then Chief Judge of the Court of Military Appeals, Albert Fletcher, who sought to “civilianize” military justice.  It was a disquieting time for all of us in uniform who were practicing criminal law, and there was hope in military circles that if there was a vacancy of the Court, whoever was nominated to fill that vacancy would be not only a scholar of military justice but also someone who would be respected by those in the armed forces. That time came when Judge Matthew Perry opted to leave the Court in 1978. 

The obvious choice to replace Perry was Robinson O. Everett, and his name was the only one submitted by the nominating committee and sent to President Carter for consideration.  Not only was he confirmed by the Senate and appointed by the President to the court, but Robbie was also designated as the new Chief Judge, replacing Fletcher. 

Judge Everett took his oath of office on April 16, 1980, and served in that capacity until 1990. I am not alone in considering that decade the halcyon years of military justice.  Judge Everett stayed on as a senior judge on the Court after 1990 and was in senior-judge status and still sitting on cases, as well as still teaching here at the law school, when he died in 2009.

 Beyond his teaching and his service on the Court of Military Appeals, Robbie had a vision of yet another way in which he could contribute to the field of national security law and policy.  In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law was the only academic center dedicated to encouraging education, research, and publications in national security law, and to conducting conferences and seminars in that area of practice. The center’s founder and director, John Norton Moore, was one of Robbie’s students in the early 1960s.  By the way, Moore’s Virginia center recently closed down, making LENS, I believe, the oldest still-functioning center of its kind in the country. 

But back in 1991 and 1992, Judge Everett was determined to establish a second center at Duke Law School: the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security.  His enthusiasm for this endeavor was contagious, and I quickly accepted his invitation to retire from the Air Force, come to Durham, and join him in making it happen. He founded the Center in September of 1993 and in all ways gave it his support—through his time, his energy, and his financial resources. In the early years, whenever he would travel from Durham, no matter where he might go, he would find an opportunity to promote his fledgling center and to try to foster interest in it.

We soon began receiving invitations to speak, either individually or together, at local clubs and organizations and at North Carolina military installations. We also continued what Robbie had been doing for many years—offering courses in national security law and military justice not just at Duke but at the law schools at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University. 

He encouraged me to add North Carolina Central University to the list of law schools where we would offer a course in national security law, and I taught there from 1995 until 2012.  Robbie at one time hoped we could teach a course at Campbell Law School, then the only other law school in the state where we weren’t teaching, but we simply did not have the time to fit it in. 

In addition to its educational offerings, the Center has organized and conducted this annual two-day conference at Duke each spring since 1995, focusing on the most current national and international security issues.  Our purpose in hosting this conference was not to promote a single view or policy on the issues facing this country, but rather to “inform the debate” so that those attending, be they faculty, students, members of the military, government workers, or folks from the local community, could hear all points of view and then make up their own minds as to what they believed. 

Further, wherever possible, Judge Everett and I wanted this conference to be offered free of charge, as a public service to Duke and to the community; and to that end we raised money from inside the Duke community, as well as from outside sources, to cover our costs.  I believe that approach became impracticable a few years ago, so Charlie now charges a nominal registration fee to attend. 

In furtherance of Robbie’s life long affiliation with the American Bar Association, from 1996 until two years ago, the Center was also a major cosponsor, with the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security, of the annual two-day Review of the Field of National Security Law, in Washington, D.C. The Center has also published numerous articles and monographs on significant national security issues, and Charlie has continued that tradition with his numerous writings, media interviews  and his Lawfire blog.   

The Center has come a distance since 1993, attaining national and even international recognition, and Judge Robinson Everett was the guiding hand along that path. 

Notwithstanding all of his many and varied contributions to the field of national security over the years, Judge Everett remained a humble and unassuming man, always looking to raise up others rather than himself.  In the eyes of many of his colleagues, his humility and selflessness reflect who he was better than any of his heralded achievements, and those  qualities are what I cherish and remember most about Robbie.  

I have only begun to scratch the surface of the greatness of Robinson Everett, but I was once told that no speech…no talk…could be entirely bad if it was brief enough; so I’m going to quit now and turn it back over to you, Charlie.

At the conference the Center presented Judge Everett’s sons, Rob, Luke, and Greg with a memorial commemorating their father’s indispensable role in establishing the Center which now enjoyed its 25th Anniversary conference thanks to his vision, energy, and dedication.

Judge Everett’s legacy lives on and we believe, as his son Rob said, that he “would be humbled and delighted.”  We’re dedicated to making sure he is always proud of his creation!

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