[Posted January 28, 2013] I saw the news yesterday, and while it was understandable, it still came as a surprise; Senior Justice Harry Carrico passed away Sunday morning, at 96.

Others will have observations that are far more personal than anything I can possibly offer; I’m fairly certain that I never spoke with him at any point when there was not a lectern between us. But Harry Carrico was, for a generation, the chief justice; he occupied the center chair so long that many lawyers were sworn in by him, and practiced law for a full twenty years with him still there, presiding over the court with politeness and civility to which we can aspire. I was one of those lawyers. From the time I became a lawyer in 1982 until 2003, when he became a senior justice, it was always the Carrico Court.

There’s a stereotypic image of a gracious, polite southern lawyer, aided by Harper Lee’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. But by all accounts, Harry Carrico lived that image. By doing so, he encouraged the rest of us to follow suit. To this day, attorneys at the Supreme Court’s lectern may expect to receive tough questions, but they’ll virtually never see a vicious question. Based on Justice Carrico’s example, the court simply doesn’t operate that way. That’s because, as he recognized, people shouldn’t operate that way.

I mentioned that I never spoke directly with Justice Carrico outside an oral argument, but I did have one personal contact with him that I treasure. On the occasion of his retirement from the center chair – not from the bench, of course – in 2003, I wrote a short note to him, congratulating him and thanking him for his service to the Commonwealth.

To my surprise, he wrote back. Remember, this was a legal titan, the man who had accepted my oath as an attorney, a man whom I’d never met personally. As far as I knew, to him I was just one of a long string of nameless lawyers who came to argue an appeal, and them stepped aside for the next case. But he wrote, thanking me for my note and wishing me well. The part of that note that I’ll always remember most fondly was the salutation. Despite our lack of direct acquaintance, he didn’t begin the note with, “Dear counselor,” or even “Dear Mr. Emmert.” Instead, he started with something that made me feel special.

Dear Steve . . .