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Beasley, Newby race for Chief Justice of NC Supreme Court

Cheri Beasley has served as Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court since she was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper in February 2019. 

Her republican opponent, Paul Newby, has served on the Supreme Court of North Carolina since 2004, making him the longest serving member of the court. Before that, he served as an assistant United States Attorney in Raleigh for 19 years. Justice Newby has taught courses for the United States Department of Justice and is currently an adjunct professor at Campbell University School of Law. Newby is the lone republican currently on the court. 

Chief Justice Beasley has served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of North Carolina since 2012. She has been a judge for over 20 years. First as a District Court judge in Cumberland County where she served for a decade before being elected to North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008. Before becoming a judge, she worked as a public defender in Cumberland County. Beasley is the first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. 

When Beasley was appointed to the position of chief justice in 2019, Newby, who had publicly asked to be appointed to the position, derided the governor’s decision. 

“Sadly, today Governor Cooper decided to place raw partisan politics over non-partisan judiciary by refusing to honor the time-tested tradition of naming the Senior Associate Justice as Chief Justice,” Newby said. “The governor’s decision further erodes public trust and confidence in a fair judiciary, free from partisan manipulation.”

The opioid epidemic has ravaged North Carolina for years now and is a continuing issue for many families in Western North Carolina. What should the courts be doing to deal with the problem in a constructive way? 

Paul Newby: I am supportive of drug treatment courts. We’re not talking about high level dealers, we are talking about folks that are addicted and they have a desire to lose their addiction, they’re willing to go through a drug treatment court and then you bring in all the different organizations that administer to these kinds of folks, try to help them overcome their addictions. And you sort through that group to determine who has the best outcomes. And then you encourage, there are choices involved and treatment regimens and things like that. But one, there’s got to be more public awareness of what a significant problem this is. There are things under the existing law that we in the judicial branch need to think through in conjunction with district attorneys, judges, local stakeholders who know their local group much better than we would ever know them from Raleigh. Then trying to determine what’s best for each area. Then Raleigh should be there to equip and empower these individuals to pursue what they think are the best processes in each area. 

Cheri Beasley: Well, we really must. Right now we have 26 drug treatment courts across the state. There was a time when we had at least one drug court, and sometimes more than one, in every single county across the state. Unfortunately, we don’t have that any longer because the state no longer funds them in that way. We just have to get back there. It is pertinent, especially now because we know that there was an opioid problem before the pandemic. What we also know is that during the pandemic, the opioid crisis and substance misuse as a whole is up. We know that alcoholism is up. So we can ill afford not to provide opportunities through our courts for people to receive treatment, and for there also to be some accountability as well. Courts really ought to be a part of helping people be successful in their lives. My goal is to work to make sure that we have more substance abuse courts and more mental health courts. We have four mental health courts in North Carolina now, and we just need them everywhere. 

What is an accomplishment you are particularly proud of, or you feel exemplifies your career?

Newby: I grew up in Jamestown, NC. Mom was a school teacher, dad was an hourly worker. Met my first lawyer when I was a Boy Scout working my way to Eagle, I had no idea I would have the honor, the privilege now of serving on the Supreme Court for 16 years, and for that I am very thankful for the people for electing me twice and giving me that honor, that privilege to serve on the court. 

In 1865, a union soldier stole North Carolina’s original copy of the Bill of Rights. And in 2003, as an assistant United States Attorney, right before I got elected to the court, I orchestrated the undercover sting operation that got it back. I’m a history person, my children say it’s because I’ve lived most of it, but I love history. 

So why is North Carolina’s Bill of Rights significant? There were 14 original copies, one for the federal government, one for each of the 13 colonies. North Carolina was the only state to have considered not ratifying, we did that in 1788, and we did it because there was no Bill of Rights. North Carolina communicated with the National Government ‘we’re not going to join unless there is a Bill of Rights.’ To be a part of recovering that significant portion of North Carolina history that had been gone for 138 years, I’m grateful to have had that opportunity. 

Beasley: There are quite a few things that I’m proud of. I’m really thankful that so much of my work as Chief Justice has been around making sure that we instill trust and confidence in our courts. One of the best ways I think to do that is to be able to help people navigate through the courts better. We know that more than half of the people who come to our courts come representing themselves. Knowing that, it’s really important that we have enough tools available for them to be able to navigate it. One of the things we’ve started is NC guide and file. Any person, any lawyer or anyone who represents themselves can go to this portal and they can complete complaints or answers for absolute divorce, domestic violence, protective order, adult name change, small estates, and summary ejectment or evictions. 

We’re looking to add more areas of the law as well, but anybody can go to this portal, fill out this interview, and then have a document that can actually be filed with the court and then actually heard. 

I’m also really proud of our Faith and Justice Alliance where we are partnering with clergy across the state and faith leaders to train them, to recognize legal issues, and then to be able to refer people to legal assistance at no cost to them. Also, the opportunity to hold legal clinics, even virtually in places of worship and faith organizations. Little did we know that a year ago when we started the Faith and Justice Alliance that we would be in the middle of this pandemic. And all of that is compounded by heightened racial tensions. I think it’s a really wonderful intersection of law and faith and justice at a time when people are really experiencing some of the greatest needs ever.

Does racial bias exist within the North Carolina Court System? If so, what can be done to address it? 

Newby: Our state constitution, since its inception says this: all courts shall be open. Every person for an injury done shall have remedy by due course of law. Right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial, delay. That’s Article one section 18. 

Under that state constitution, there is equal justice. The symbol of the judicial branch is lady justice, she is blindfolded, can’t see who comes before her, rich or poor. Is perception important? Of course it is. Public trust and confidence is vital, foundational to who we are. People have to know that when they come before the courts, they are going to be treated the same, regardless of skin tone, or gender, or ethnicity or anything else. 

In terms of me actually characterizing, right now, does our system have embedded, some type of bias? That’s inappropriate for me to comment on. I can’t make a policy statement when there are cases that raise that issue that come before the court. So as a sitting justice, if the state comes forward to say ‘well we don’t think bias played a role in this case’ and I’ve already made a pronouncement, I’ve pre-judged without explicit evidence with regard to that. It’s a disservice to the people, but more importantly under the judicial code of ethics, I can’t make that kind of statement. 

Again, perception is important. I want to be clear about this. Through the open world program through the Library of Congress, I meet with judges from all over the world. And the perception of America is that we have the fairest judicial system in the world. A lot of that has to do with our jury system which takes power from judges and gives it to we the people. 

So my humble point is embedded in both the state and federal constitutions are protections of individuals and just as I read article one section 18, that justice is to be administered without favor or denial or delay, that’s the promise that all are treated the same in equal justice for everyone. 

Beasley: You know, it does. And while I don’t think that it’s intentional, I think it does happen and we’ve already begun to have really important and constructive conversations about being introspective about our own implicit biases as court leaders and judges and district attorneys and clerks of court. But the other thing too, is we really have to take action around that. The conversations are really important, but we’re working now to implement measures to make sure that we’re making some changes so that the outcomes of court cases in our courts are not disparate. We’ve already begun with some continuing education for judges. We will do that for everybody on implicit bias and that will be continuing. So that’s not just a one-time thing, but we will also be working on other kinds of measures to make sure that court leaders can recognize when it’s happening. 

Why are you the right person for this job?

Newby: Experience. I have practiced law for over 40 years, have served on the court for 16 years. Traditionally experience is important in this role in terms of understanding the inner workings of the court, as well as understanding our complete judicial system. I have practiced in just about every area of the law. That’s important because I understand what it’s like to have an office practice and be a transactional attorney. I’ve closed real estate loans, I’ve searched titles, I’ve spent time in the Clerk’s office, in the register of deeds office. I have hands on, boots on the ground experience with regard to transactional work, but also with regard to litigation, which is courtroom work. I have been in private practice representing individuals, I have represented the government, and I have also been involved in corporate law where I was the general counsel of a company. I was in-house counsel. I have not just read about or written about, I have actually practiced in just about every area of the law. I bring a very practical series of experiences that are vital for the chief justice. The chief justice works on all different types of statewide rules in court, trying to ensure that the process leads to equal justice for all. In addition to that I have written the only book on the state constitution, I teach at Campbell Law School. I teach lawyers and judges and I take very seriously the role of mentoring.

To me, what you’re looking for in a Chief Justice is someone who is not able to dictate the way things should be done, but encourage, and I might even use the word, inspire people to do the right thing, and frankly, to leave our illustration of justice better than we found it. 

Beasley: Well, I have the experience. I have served as a judge now for 21 years. I’m actually the second longest serving judge on the Supreme Court, with the longest serving justice being Justice Michael Morgan. And I think experience matters. I’ve served on three different courts. I served as a district court judge in Cumberland County for 10 years and presided in all of our courts, juvenile, civil, criminal, and traffic. I served on the North Carolina Court of Appeals for four years. Of course, I’ve served on the Supreme Court for seven years with the last year and a half being chief justice. I do believe that judicial service matters, given that the chief justice leads the Supreme court. That’s really important. Of course, the Supreme Court is the highest court and so it hears really important cases, but the chief justice also leads the entire court system. 

It’s important to understand the functionality of the court. I also believe that in these difficult times, understanding and appreciating that the cases that come before the court are not just cases. These cases impact people’s lives. It’s important to understand that and have an appreciation for that. The disposition of cases is very important, but it’s also important to understand that as court leaders and as the Chief Justice, she really does have an obligation and a responsibility and an opportunity to make things better for people through court systems across the state. We can say that the chief justice is only supposed to lead the court system and to oversee the budget, but I believe her role really is far more complex than that. 

I believe that the chief justice has an opportunity to do more. That’s really what my goals have been and what my service has been about as Chief Justice, to make sure that we’re making changes in our courts. We must acknowledge that there are disparities based on race, gender, and the other isms. It’s not fair to folks to say, ‘oh, this doesn’t exist. We don’t need to do anything about it or acknowledge it.’ 

We must acknowledge it and we must take action. I think that distinguishes me from my opponent, and I think it’s critically important if we expect, for people in Western North Carolina, and across the state to believe in our courts, that we have to acknowledge that there are problems. The chief justice must take responsibility and be willing to make some changes. 

If you are elected as chief justice how would you lead the courts through the Coronavirus Pandemic to keep North Carolinians safe, and the system still running?

Newby: We’ve got constitutional promises that again, Article One Section 19, but there’s others as well that say the court shall be open. Now the Supreme Court over the 200 years of our jurisprudence has interpreted that as the courts are always accessible. We’ve gone through seven, eight months without any jury trials. Justice delayed is justice denied. In civil and criminal cases there are victims wondering when the perpetrator will be tried, convicted and punished. Defendants sitting in jail, wondering when their case is going to come up. On the civil side, people who were wronged and need a civil recovery. We have some significant issues. We had a backlog already before March, and now we have a very significant backlog. 

My approach is to enable the local stakeholders, resident superior court judges, the chief district court judges, local defense attorneys, the clerks of court, and figure out how we can proceed. This virus has forced us to do some things virtually, but we can do both. This is not an either or. If you look at the federal courts, they have continued to have jury trials, so have South Carolina, Tennessee and other states. Now we’re going to have to play catch up and that’s never good. 

What I’m being told by judges across the state is they have been ready for months to proceed with appropriate safeguards. And yet they have been denied that opportunity. I would immediately empower the local senior residents to proceed according to their view or what they think is prudent for their area. Again, it’s not one size fits all, justice delayed is justice denied, and yes, we have the promises of life, but we also have the promises of Liberty and pursuit of happiness. 

How will you continue to lead the NC courts through the trials of the Coronavirus Pandemic? 

Beasley: Technology really has been important. We have been holding virtual hearings across the state, and I think that’s been really important in keeping people safer. Certainly at the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. All of our arguments have been virtual, but in our local courts, they’re virtual in many instances as well. We’ve also prompted a rule change and legislation during this period of time where I had issued an order allowing for email service so that those who serve documents don’t have to increase contact with folks. After I issued the order, we now have legislation that’s effective as of Oct. 1 allowing for email service. 

In terms of where we are with e-courts, I’m thankful we’ve not lost any footing or any ground. 

We’ll begin to implement e-courts in Wake, Harnett, Johnston, Lee and Mecklenburg at the beginning of 2021. 

In terms of where we will go with this virus, the virus unfortunately will dictate that. We understand that there are great possibilities for surges during the cooler months, so we’ve just got to be mindful. 

I’ve been monitoring the virus and consulting with public health officials, literally weekly, because it’s been important to make sure that we’re making the responsible decisions. 

I have halted jury trials and now all of the senior resident superior court judges across the state have submitted plans for the resumption of jury trials in a safe way. 

Monitoring the pandemic is really important to determine how best to proceed safely. I’m always balancing safety with the need to go forward on cases and with the understanding that when we have a slowdown in our court cases, that really is impacting people’s lives. I don’t take that lightly, it’s very serious. But I also know that we must slow down the spread of COVID-19.

I think the public, in fact, I know the public expects us to proceed safely and people really do understand. It’s disheartening to have delay, but people really do understand that it is necessary. 

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