Remembering Farb

Our colleague Bob Farb announced his retirement on the blog yesterday. He worked for the School of Government for 41 years, interacted with every group of public officials imaginable, and was highly productive and widely respected. This post remembers Bob’s career.

I came to the School of Government just after Bob entered phased retirement. I interacted with him through email, occasionally by phone, and in person every year or so when he would visit Chapel Hill. He was always helpful and kind, and scrupulously refrained from criticizing the things I did that likely seemed foolish to him. I got a sense of the regard in which he was held when I received the evaluation results from the first legal update I did for prosecutors. I thought that the session had gone well enough, but most of comments were along the lines of “please bring Farb back.” Even today, there are many prosecutors, judges, and others who would like nothing better than to bring Bob back.

Among those who know Bob best are the faculty members who worked with him for years here in Chapel Hill. I’ve collected some of their reflections below.

Jim Drennan, an approximate contemporary of Bob’s, said this:

Bob Farb is the kind of colleague everyone would want to have. He is amazingly competent and knowledgeable—“what does Farb say?” has been a constant question that judges, advocates and law enforcements officials have been asking for decades. He is also a consummate team player. I worked with him for over 30 years, and he never failed to help me out when asked — even when it might have been inconvenient.  Bob embodied the values that have been the foundation of the School of Government since the beginning. His fidelity was to the law and the rule of law, and he followed the issues he researched to the result that he believed the law permitted, mandated or prohibited. That advice was sometimes what the client wanted to hear and sometimes was not. But what every client got was his best shot. His contribution to the practice of criminal justice administration across the state will last long after his retirement. The system is better because Bob decided many years ago that this was the place he would use his considerable talents.

Jessie Smith recalls the following:

When I came to the School of Government in 1999, Bob served as the Chair of my Faculty Advisory Committee. He scared me. My office was across the hall from his and I’d hear him on the phone all day long. One minute he’d answer a query about jury instructions; the next he’d dispatch one about double jeopardy or the Fourth Amendment. Most of the time he’d answer from memory, including case names and citations. It’s no wonder I was scared. I was a junior faculty member reporting to a dude whose brain was an encyclopedia of criminal law and was known to clients by the moniker, “The Oracle.” This last part is no lie. I still remember the first compliment Bob gave me. He agreed to review a paper I’d written about a complicated issue of post-conviction procedure. Buried on the last page, in red ink, were two precious words from The Oracle: “Good work.” I thought I’d won the lottery. Bob was a great colleague. He taught me law and he taught me patience. He supported me throughout my career, in ways too numerous to recount. But most importantly he went from being the Chair of my Faculty Advisory Committee to being a friend. And that’s the part I value most of all.

John Rubin, who worked primarily with defense lawyers for many years while Bob more often worked with prosecutors, had this to say:

I asked Bob to read everything I wrote. He always made it better. He might address something simple, like substituting real words and phrases for technical lingo—such as saying “the driver got out of the car” instead of “the occupant exited the vehicle.” Or, he might catch something substantive—something I missed or just didn’t know. “Encyclopedic” accurately describes Bob’s mastery of criminal law. Perhaps most important, Bob provided perspective when I’d write about a problem or inconsistency in the law. Is there really a gap or is there a way to synthesize the different strains in the law? If there is a problem, what’s the most effective way to express it for our diverse audiences? His comments and our ensuing discussions didn’t necessarily change my take, but they invariably strengthened my analysis.

Senior Associate Dean Tom Thornburg, who worked with Bob and the court system for many years, recalls:

For as long as Bob Farb worked at the Institute of Government and School of Government, he was the go-to person on criminal law and procedure, especially for prosecutors and law enforcement. As a colleague, I always had much to learn from Bob. “Encyclopedic” was an adjective almost all of us used for him. If he didn’t know an answer, he could find it quickly. Before there were computers, Bob maintained a folder system with background and answers on dozens of legal issues in a file cabinet in his office. He shared a list of all those files by subject area with his colleagues, and we used them in our work. He was a sharing colleague, often quiet and easy to like. He brightened whenever he could talk about Tar Heel sports.

He maintained a heavy advising load with judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement. He organized and delivered countless training events for North Carolina’s district attorneys and assistant district attorneys. He has written dozens of IOG and SOG bulletins and teaching papers, many of which still inform SOG faculty work today. He created the Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina reference book as we know it. For many years, he wrote the North Carolina Prosecutor’s Trial Manual and summaries of North Carolina appellate opinions.

Bob’s dedication and skill has had a tremendous impact on the quality of criminal law practice in North Carolina’s courts. We will miss him.

Finally, the following is the text of the certificate the School of Government presented to Bob in 2007 when he retired from full-time work:

“What does Bob Farb say about that?” Judges have asked that question daily. So have prosecutors, law enforcement officers, criminal investigators, magistrates, and wildlife officers. They have, for more than thirty-one years, known that what Bob says matters. It matters because Bob has dedicated himself to the mastery of North Carolina criminal law.

Mastery is not the product of chance. Bob brought to this undertaking a keen intellect, a taste for hard work, a commitment to justice and the rule of law, and a drive to find the practical ways to communicate his scholarship through writing, teaching, and dialogue. Almost singled-handedly, he created the definitive North Carolina texts in capital case law and the law of arrest, search, and investigation. He maintained works great in scope, like the prosecutor’s trial manual, and demanding in precision, like the warrant and indictment forms manual. His pithy summaries of appellate opinions are prized.

Bob has been an outstanding teacher and an innovator, using a problem approach and detailed written materials. He is loved by those he has taught. Bob has been a leader in embracing new technologies, creating a criminal law website, creating a listserv, and providing audio legal updates via the web. Bob is known across the court system for his encyclopedic knowledge and the ability to share it quickly, reliably, and clearly. His phone never stops ringing. His inbox is full.

On July 1, 1976, Bob brought to the Institute of Government a winning modesty and a dry wit. Both had served him well in his course to a bachelor’s degree in political science from UNC Chapel Hill and law degree from Harvard Law School and in his time as a prosecutor in Durham. At the Institute they helped him flourish. He is held in the highest regard by his colleagues for his skill and his character.

For these reasons, we, the faculty and staff of the School of Government, are proud to fix our signatures to this certificate in tribute to Robert L. Farb, scholar, teacher, lawyer, and friend. We want to honor him as he embarks on phased retirement—knowing he may not give us a chance later!

The School, the university, and the people of North Carolina are in his debt.

Well said. Thank you, Bob, for your service.

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