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50 years later, NCSC celebrates its founding moment

It was 50 years ago — March 11, 1971 — that the First National Conference on the Judiciary opened at the Williamsburg Conference Center in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The event was big news. It made the front page of the New York Times the next day, no doubt thanks to the starring role given to President Richard Nixon, who took a helicopter down from Washington to deliver a keynote address in which he urged “imagination and daring” to improve the justice system.

It was also a big deal measured in both participation and dollars. The conference attracted legal luminaries from across the country. The event was chaired by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark. Also in attendance were John N. Mitchell, the Attorney General of the United States, and Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger. Historical accounts vary, with some indicating there were about 400 participants in attendance, but with other accounts suggesting it was closer to 600 participants. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the event cost nearly $1 million, which was paid for by a grant from the U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA).

Gordon Morse, who would go on to have a distinguished career in journalism at the Newport News Daily Press and the Virginian-Pilot, was a senior at the College of William & Mary at the time. He recalled being starstruck when Nixon’s helicopter landed on a golf course near the conference center and a small group of dignitaries greeted him and whisked him into a limousine.

“When the closed limousine passed, we saw (Virginia) Gov. Linwood Holton seated in the back with the president,” Morse recounted. “They both waved as the car passed within a few feet of us before proceeding up to the old (Williamsburg) Lodge entrance.”

For many, the centerpiece of the event was the speech delivered by Chief Justice Burger, who called for the creation of a national center for state courts, a concept which got enshrined in the opening sentence of the conference’s final “consensus statement.”

“I am confident there will be widespread interest in the formation of such a group as this,” said Burger. He was right. Only a few months later, on August 14, 1971, the first meeting of NCSC’s board of directors was held at the Plymouth Courthouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

And 50 years later — less than one mile from the site of the initial conference — NCSC remains a fixture both in Williamsburg, and in the national drive to improve the administration of justice in state courts and courts around the world.