The possum and the judge
Judge Fred G. Morrison Jr. may have encountered a few rats during his many years in state government, but an opossum?
After a distinguished law career spanning nearly half a century — including a six-year stint as an attorney and civic leader in Thomasville — the longtime administrative law judge’s ultimate claim to fame may be as a possum-squasher.
Last month, Morrison ruled that the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission does not have the authority to issue a permit for the annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop in tiny Brasstown, N.C., effectively preventing the organizer from using a live possum at tonight’s event.
“Citizens are prohibited from capturing and using wild animals for pets or amusement,” Morrison wrote in his ruling. “Hunters must afford wild animals the same right Patrick Henry yearned for: ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’”
The 18-page ruling placed the judge in a spotlight bright enough to scare a possum.
“I got lots of feedback, positive and negative,” Morrison said from his office in Raleigh, where he serves as senior administrative law judge for the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. “I heard from people all over the place.”
For two decades, Brasstown has hosted its annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop, during which a live, caged possum is ceremoniously lowered at midnight — just as the famed crystal ball drops in New York City’s Times Square — while thousands of revelers scream, shoot off fireworks and take pictures of the marsupial guest of honor.
In recent years, though, the festivities have come under heavy criticism from animal-rights activists, particularly People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), spouting charges of animal cruelty. PETA failed in previous legal attempts to stop the Possum Drop, but finally succeeded this time by filing a petition against the Wildlife Resources Commission, claiming the agency did not have the authority to issue Logan a permit for his event.
Morrison sided with PETA, agreeing that the “Temporary Possession and Release” permit the commission had issued to Logan was invalid, but not ruling specifically on whether the event constituted animal cruelty.
“It’s implied in (PETA’s) filings, where they say that these are very timid animals and the event could frighten the possum to death, but that wasn’t the issue on which I ruled,” Morrison said. “My ruling was about the legality of holding that possum captive and exhibiting the possum.”
Ironically, this is Morrison’s second encounter with a possum during his tenure in state government. Previously, he was Gov. Bob Scott’s legal counsel when the governor famously served possum at a black-tie event at the executive mansion in 1972.
“That was the only time I’d ever had any knowledge of a possum in state government,” Morrison said with a chuckle. “Until now.”
Though not a Thomasville native, Morrison lived in the Chair City through most of the 1960s. His family lived there while he was studying law at Wake Forest University, and then he practiced law in Thomasville from 1963 to 1969, when he joined the governor’s staff in Raleigh. He first practiced with E.W. Hooper, then was appointed solicitor of Thomasville Recorder’s Court; he also served as legal counsel for the Thomasville City Board of Education.
Morrison also served as president of the Thomasville Jaycees in 1967-68.
When questioned about the Possum Drop, Morrison — who has a pet golden retriever — stopped short of calling the event animal cruelty, but said organizers probably shouldn’t use a live possum.
“With all the noise and lights and firecrackers going off,” he said, his voice trailing off. “Well, I think they could get the same benefit by dropping a stuffed possum. Some people enjoy the way they’ve been doing it, but others may not, and by dropping a stuffed possum, you rid yourself of that problem.”
Meanwhile, in light of Morrison’s ruling, organizer Clay Logan said tonight’s Possum Drop will be held, but he’ll probably use a stuffed possum or a roadkill possum.
“We’re still going to do the event,” Logan said. “We just don’t know who the guest of honor will be.”
Logan also vowed to continue his fight to use a live possum at future events.
“We just lost a battle,” he said, “but we ain’t lost the war yet.”
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