Judge Robinson O. Everett '59

Main Content

As a child, Judge Robinson O. Everett wanted to be a detective. Aside from that youthful aspiration, the son of prominent Durham attorneys Kathrine R. Everett and Reuben O. Everett T '06 never had a particular career in mind.

"My parents hadn't worried much about me, and they never really talked to me about work," said Everett, who died on June 12, 2009, at the age of 81. "They were pretty sure I wouldn't be a detective."

It was a friend's suggestion rather than any specific ambition that led Everett to apply to Harvard Law School following his graduation from Harvard University in 1947 at the age of 19. "I graduated magna cum laude and that made me a reasonable candidate," Everett said. "I didn't have any plan, so I went over there." Three years later Everett again graduated magna cum laude, this time from Harvard Law School, where he was a member of the Harvard Law Review.

In 1954, he was proudly sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court Bar along with his parents.

Everett's path to the law may have been uncertain, but the legacy he leaves behind for family members, friends, and colleagues is not. The former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces was among the country's leading authorities on military justice and helped shape the field of military law. Meanwhile, during more than 50 years on the Duke Law School faculty, he educated more than 97 percent of all living alumni who fondly remember him as an engaging professor with great integrity and a disarming character.

"For so many Duke Law alumni, Judge Everett is Duke Law," said David F. Levi, dean and professor of law at Duke Law School. "He embodied the qualities of leadership and service in and through the law. He was a model of the citizen-lawyer. He made a difference to his community, his profession, and his country. His distinguished career as a law professor and judge has been an inspiration to faculty, students, and alumni at Duke Law School for more than 50 years. We will all miss his ready smile, his generosity of spirit, and his inexhaustible supply of ideas for new projects and new opportunities for students and for this Law School."

An officer and a gentleman

Everett's graduation from Harvard Law coincided with the outbreak of the Korean War. With his mother's advice and encouragement, he volunteered for the Air Force Reserves in July 1951 after teaching for a year at Duke Law.

Everett served for two years in the Judge Advocate General's Department, and upon his release from active duty served as commissioner of the United States Court of Military Appeals. He was a member of the Air Force Reserve from the day he enlisted as a private in 1951 until April 1978, when he retired as colonel.

He was counsel to the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee from 1961 to 1964 and consulted for the committee from 1964 to 1966. His participation in extensive studies and hearings contributed to the enactment of the Military Justice Act of 1968, which created the position of military judge and formalized the military court system.

Everett served a 10-year appointment as chief judge of the United States Court of Military Appeals, retiring in 1990 to become a senior judge of the court. He received the Judge Advocates Association's Life Service Award, which is now named in his honor, in 2000.

Following Everett's death the United States Air Force gave its approval for his former student, Brig. Gen. Steven Lepper '84, one of the Air Force's highest ranking generals, to head the honor detail for the funeral services in Fayetteville, N.C. It is a rare and appropriate honor, said Scott Silliman, director of Duke Law's Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security, which Everett founded.

Chief Judge Andrew Effron gathered judges and staff at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces on the Monday after Everett's death to share personal memories of their friend and former colleague. Effron offered his own on-the-record tribute when he formally opened the court later that day.

Recollections also poured in to many military websites and publications, including The Veterans Herald. Everett co-founded the publication and chaired its board of advisors.

"I followed Judge Everett as chief judge on the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces," said Eugene Sullivan, who served as chief judge from 1990 to 1995, in a front-page story in The Veterans Herald on June 15. "Nobody replaced him, only followed him. He raised the court to new levels and gave us all a goal to strive toward."

Professor Robert F. Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, shared his admiration on CAAFlog, a blog dedicated to legal issues related to the United States' Armed Forces.

"I knew Robbie Everett for more than 25 years, and during that time he had few equals in the field of military law," Turner wrote. "We worked together often in the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security. A true gentleman with a great sense of humor and love of life, I never heard an unpleasant word from him. He was a great teacher, in and outside the classroom, and a champion of the highest human values. The world is a lesser place for his absence."

A forward-thinking scholar, a warm classroom presence

Everett was the youngest person ever to teach at Duke Law School when he first taught a course at the age of 22. After various part-time teaching roles, he joined the Law School faculty in 1957 and was awarded tenure in 1967. "I guess I must have been a good teacher, because they let me stay on," he joked.

Everett published the textbook Military Justice in the Armed Forces of the United States in 1956 and produced legal scholarship throughout his career that addressed issues relating to military justice, criminal procedure, and redistricting, among other topics. In 1993, he founded the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at the Law School and recruited Scott Silliman, a leading expert on military and national security law, to serve as director. Silliman retired after 24 years as an Air Force Lawyer to join Everett at Duke.

"I could think of nothing better than to have a second career teaching and studying with Robinson Everett," said Silliman. "He was a man who was never at a loss for some kind of creative idea for a program, a conference, or a course that had not been done before. I tried to do the things he envisioned."

"Robinson was hugely energetic and enthusiastic. He was always coming to speak with me about one idea or another that he thought would provide opportunities for our students or our graduates," said Katharine T. Bartlett, the A. Kenneth Pye Professor of Law and dean of Duke Law School from 2000 to 2007. "When he established the Center for Law, Ethics, and National Security in 1993, he was way ahead of his time, in terms of foreseeing legal and policy issues that now dominate the political, ethical, and military landscape."

The Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security supports and encourages teaching and scholarly research on national security law topics and hosts conferences and seminars in the national security field. For 14 years the Center has joined with the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Law and National Security to co-sponsor an annual national security law update and review conference in Washington, D.C.

"The center is in many ways a fitting tribute to a man who is so widely respected. He just touched so many lives and did so many things in the course of his 81 years," Silliman said. "Anything we try to say about him and his accomplishments is an understatement. We can't say enough about the character of the man or what he accomplished."

In the classroom Everett inspired equal parts admiration and affection. He developed strong relationships with past students and considered many to be like family members.

"Robbie had friends and admirers all over the country," Levi said. "Even before I came to Duke, I had heard that Judge Everett was a hero to many in the field of military justice. Once I became dean, I was struck by how many of our alumni also looked to Professor Everett for guidance and for example."

Llewelyn Pritchard '61 studied criminal law with Everett in 1959 and recalled his admiration for the young professor's wisdom and warmth during a 2008 interview.

"He had an interesting combination of incredibly good academic skills and practical experience," Pritchard said. "Those were the days some teachers made it their business to terrorize you, but he was always polite, kind, and interested in what you had to say."

Everett maintained that cordial nature with students throughout his five decades at the Law School. "Law is a great profession that provides some wonderful opportunities for service to others and is also a means to a productive life," he said.

"I was amazed by his kindness and patience. I particularly recall how he conducted our final exam review session with enthusiasm and devotion," said Natalie Bedoya '10, who was a student in Everett's Criminal Procedure course. "His dedication to the student body was also remarkable, as he attended every on-campus function without fail. Judge Everett was a wonderful person, who will truly be missed."

William A. Reppy, the Charles L. B. Lowndes Emeritus Professor of Law, first met Everett when he interviewed for a teaching position at Duke Law in 1970. After joining the Law School faculty, Reppy observed Everett's unfailing sensitivity toward individuals who seemed lonely or isolated from the rest of the student body.

"He opened himself up to those who really needed or could use the friendship of a faculty member," Reppy said. "He was very generous, having them to his home."

That compassion also extended to his Law School colleagues.

"Robbie has bestowed more kindness on me than any other faculty member," Reppy said. "He was sensitive and always knew when a younger faculty member could use a pat on the back."

Away from the classroom, Reppy was among a small group of colleagues that regularly attended Duke football games with Everett. Reppy said two things stood out about him: his continued dedication to the team despite its considerable struggles on the field, and his choice of attire for the contests.

"Robbie dressed up in a suit for games," Reppy said. "He would arrive in a coat and tie — he was a traditionalist."

Everett's distinguished apparel was a constant at the Law School, where he worked in coat and tie right up until the day before his passing.

Doris Ann Kelly spent nearly nine years as Everett's staff assistant at the Law School, during which time he made her feel like family.

"He was a fantastic person as well as a great boss," Kelly said. "He made the hardest tasks seem so simple. I felt like I was getting a law degree without going to law school."

"I've never known anyone like him before," she added. "He left me with a lot of wonderful memories."

The Duke Law Alumni Association awarded Everett the Charles S. Murphy Award for public service in 1993 and the A. Kenneth Pye Award for integrity, intellect, and compassion toward students in 2008.

A legacy of leadership

Everett first returned to Durham in 1955 to work at his parents' law firm. He continued in general practice for 25 years and became a fixture in the local community.

"Robinson was connected; he knew people everywhere," Bartlett said. "He was always bringing by my office a distinguished guest who had come to visit him and, often, one of his classes. He represented our school and our profession in the best possible way in numerous activities and at numerous events of the North Carolina Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and other professional organizations. Over the years he was personally instrumental in drawing to Duke quite a number of the presidents of the American Bar Association."

Everett is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association's General Practice Hall of Fame. He served in leadership capacities in the North Carolina Bar, the American Bar Association, and other local, state, and national bar organizations. He received the American Bar Association's Morris I. Liebman Award in 2000, the North Carolina Bar Association's John J. Parker Memorial Award in 2004, and the Professional Award from the Chief Justice's Committee on Professionalism.

Like his mother who lived in Durham for 66 years and once served on the Durham City Council, Everett involved himself with many civic activities. He was a commissioner of the Uniform State Laws and in various law reform efforts. He worked for the city's urban renewal commission and regularly participated in the Durham CROP walk, an annual fundraising event to fight hunger sponsored by Durham Congregations in Action.

He was a longtime member of the First Presbyterian Church of Durham and recited the 23rd Psalm and the Apostle's Creed before going to bed at night. He paid particular attention the Lord's Prayer, which he said helped provide him calm during periods of stress.

Everett held a deep sense of gratitude toward his mother, with whom he started several of the region's television stations. He used his many charitable efforts as an opportunity to carry out her wishes through support for Duke Law, the University of North Carolina School of Law (of which she was the first female graduate), and First Presbyterian Church.

His substantial financial contributions to Duke Law helped address financial aid and student needs. In 2002 he established the Reuben Oscar and Robinson O. Everett Scholarship Endowment at the Law School. The Kathrine R. Everett Law Library at the University of North Carolina School of Law is named in his mother's memory.

With myriad accomplishments from which to choose, Everett consistently identified his proudest moment as persuading his wife, Lynn McGregor Everett, to marry him. The couple has three sons: Rob Jr., Greg, and Luke. Everett also was particularly proud last fall when Luke, his wife, Sherry, and Rob were sworn into the practice of law by Judge James Hardin '74.

"Death is a chance to think about life," Bartlett said. "Anyone could learn from Robbie's life about how to live better their own."


About this page

The Honorable Judge Robinson O. Everett taught at Duke Law School for more than 50 years and was a member of the Class of 1959. A teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, Everett leaves behind an indelible legacy at Duke Law School and in the legal profession.

This memorial site contains links to an obituary, stories, and a video of a recent interview with Everett. We have also established a page containing memories and condolences from those whose lives Everett touched.