Capital - April 2005

Boyce is one trial lawyer conservatives don't hate
By Jack Betts

Phil Haire still remembers that day 32 years ago when his roommate walked into their Alexandria, Va., apartment with an ashen look on his face. “You just won’t believe what I just heard,” Gene Boyce told him.

Both men were lawyers for the Senate Watergate Committee, but they were bound by secrecy. It wasn’t until the following Monday that Haire — and a national television audience that hung on every word — found out what Boyce already knew: President Richard Nixon had secretly taped conversations in the Oval Office, the Executive Office Building and even at Camp David.

What impressed Haire, now a state representative from Sylva, was not just Alexander Butterfield’s revelation of the tapes that would bring down the Nixon presidency. It was Boyce’s ability to keep a secret.

Trust is a trait that still marks the career of Boyce, now a 72-year-old Raleigh trial lawyer who has won a series of lawsuits that have returned billions of dollars to North Carolina taxpayers. “There may be people who don’t like Gene Boyce, but there aren’t many who don’t trust him,” says Raleigh lawyer Stephanie Gibbs, who worked for him one summer before starting law school.

Trial lawyers who win big judgments are often blamed for running up costs of the legal system and pocketing most of the dough. What sets Boyce apart is that the cases he litigated against the state through the 1990s resulted in taxpayers getting back all their money, plus interest. In the Bailey and Patton cases, which challenged tax treatment of both state and federal retirees, Boyce and colleagues won a $799 million settlement from the legislature. In the Fulton and Smith cases, involving state taxation of intangible personal property, his team won a settlement worth $440 million.

He has a handful of other cases in the works: suing the Easley administration for withholding more than $300 million in tax funds that had gone to local governments, challenging the diversion of money from the Highway Fund to other uses and arguing that the proceeds from the $4.6 billion national tobacco settlement should go to the state treasury instead of into trust funds.

So far, according to his tally, the lawsuits he and his allies have won total $1.4 billion, saving taxpayers about $3.2 billion overall. The cases have made him rich. “I’ve made a bunch,” he concedes. He still lives simply and works out of cramped, cluttered quarters furnished with discount furniture. “It didn’t change my lifestyle one bit,” he jokes, “and it didn’t change my wife’s, either. What we got is buried in a jar in the backyard.” He drove a ’96 Buick until his children — two of them and his son-in-law are his partners in the four-lawyer firm of Boyce & Isley — gave him a Lexus.

Though he won a ton of money for taxpayers who had invested in the stock market, he wasn’t one of them. “I had put three children through college and two of them through graduate school. I had never owned a share of stock in my life. Well, I own a little bit now — emphasis on the little bit.” In a way, he’s glad he didn’t win huge judgments until late in his career. “It’s a good thing something like this happens to you when you’re older rather than younger. It would ruin a young man. I’d probably be divorced and married to an 18-year-old girl by now.”

Boyce grew up in modest circumstances, the son of a print-shop foreman, and worked in the com-posing room of the now-defunct Raleigh Times before heading to Wake Forest College. He made Phi Beta Kappa and won honors while earning a bachelor’s degree in 1954 and a law degree in 1956. After three years as an officer in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, he joined the law firm headed by I. Beverly Lake Sr. and A.J. Fletcher. Lake, who became a state Supreme Court justice, was the father of Chief Justice Bev Lake. Fletcher, who owned WRAL-TV in Raleigh, gave a young commentator named Jesse Helms a daily five-minute editorial that made him hugely popular and launched his political career.

In those days, Boyce was a Democrat. He managed the 1972 campaign of Ike F. Andrews, who won a tight race for Congress, and went to Washington to help him set up his U.S. House office. He soon came to the attention of Sam Ervin, whose colleagues had tapped him to chair the Senate Watergate investigation because his conservative bona fides gave him credibility with both parties. Rufus Edmisten, the committee’s chief deputy counsel, recruited Boyce because of his reputation. “He was very deliberative, excellent at interrogating witnesses,” Edmisten recalls.

Boyce didn’t stay long in Washington and has spent most of his career practicing constitutional law back home. Though he can deliver a painstaking, blow-by-blow accounting of his cases, he seems at a loss when asked to explain his motivation in pursuing them — perhaps because it seems so obvious to him: He’s fighting what he sees as unconstitutional abuse of power, reflected in the way government taxes its citizens or uses that tax money. Plus, he probably enjoys challenging the powers that be and kicking their butts, which he has done regularly for at least the last decade.

He switched his party registration years ago to unaffiliated. His son, Dan, won the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2000, and law partner Philip Isley, who is married to Boyce’s daughter Laura, is a member of the Raleigh City Council. The family firm is involved in a suit against Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat whose 2000 campaign ran an erroneous ad implying that the firm had charged excessive fees in one of the high-dollar tax cases.

But Boyce says he likes Democrats, especially the governor, who as attorney general from 1993 to 2001 defended the state in the tax cases. “Somebody said, ‘You don’t like Mike Easley, do you?’ And I said, ‘I love the man, love him to death. Every time he does something new, he makes a little something for me and my family.’”

He often talks about his belief in the state constitution — he carries a copy for reference — and its power to protect the people. One day early in the deliberations of a tax case he thought his clients might lose, he led a group to the General Assembly to do a little lobbying. It was the same day the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City was blown up. Amid all the fear, shock and horror, someone asked him, a man who uses briefs rather than bombs to challenge government, to say a few words about the role of ordinary citizens in such tumultuous times.

“I took the bullhorn and said, ‘Folks, you’re here at the legislative building, the seat of the legislative branch. Behind me up the hill there, you see the old Capitol, the seat of the executive branch. And over there, the building that says Law and Justice, that’s the judicial building, the third branch of government. And there’s a fourth branch of government, and it can abolish this one and that one and the other one. The fourth branch is in charge of the constitution, and you are the fourth branch of government.’”