A Break in Tradition
In a historic moment in North Carolina’s judicial history, Justice Cheri Beasley was sworn in as the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina on March 7th, 2019. Her appointment is historic in two ways: (1) upon her appointment, Chief Justice Beasley has become the first African-American woman to hold the position in the State’s history; and (2) her appointment breaks the long-held state tradition of appointing the senior associate justice to the position.
- THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT OF NORTH CAROLINA.
On January 25th, 2019, Chief Justice Martinannounced his resignation from the Supreme Court of North Carolina to take a position as the Dean of Regent University School of Law. That resignation was effective as of February 28th, 2019. Chief Justice Martin served twenty-six years as a North Carolina judge, and more than twenty years on the Supreme Court of North Carolina as both an Associate Justice and as the Chief Justice. His resignation left the Court a 6-1 Democratic majority, with Senior Associate Justice Newbyas the last remaining registered Republican on the Court.
With Chief Justice Martin’s resignation, the Chief Justice position became vacant. The North Carolina Constitution, article IV, Section Nineteen, empowers the Governor to fill the vacancy by appointment. It does not state, however, whom the governor may or may not appoint. To fill the vacancy, Governor Cooperselected Justice Cheri Beasleyas an appointee.
Justice Beasley, now Chief Justice Beasley, began her legal career as an Assistant Public Defender in Cumberland County in 1994 until 1999. She then started her twenty-year judicial career as a District Court judge in Cumberland County in 1999 until 2008 through an appointment by then Governor Jim Hunt. After nearly ten years of serving as a judge in the District Court of Cumberland County, she was elected to serve as an Associate Judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008. Her election that year made her the first African-American woman elected in any statewide race without first being appointed to the office. Justice Beasley served four years as an associate judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
After the four years at the North Carolina Court of Appeals, she was then appointed by Governor Beverly Perdueto fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which was created by the retirement of Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson in 2012. In the Supreme Court’s 200-year history, Justice Beasley became the eighth woman and only the second African-American woman to serve on the Court. Additionally, with her recent appointment by Governor Cooper, Chief Justice Beasley became the first African-American woman to serve as Chief Justice of the State’s highest Court.
In response to her appointment and on being accredited as being the first African-American woman to hold the position, Chief Justice Beasley told a local news station, “It’s a wonderful commentary on where we are as a people in North Carolina and where the state is. I think it’s a wonderful celebration of diversity. I think this kind of advancement for our state and for our courts really ought to be a way to show young people that they ought to dream their dreams and realize that possibilities can be real.” In a separate interview,Chief Justice Beasley commented on Governor Cooper’s decision in choosing her over other notable candidates for the position, “I wholeheartedly believe that Governor Cooper . . . made the decision that he believes in the best interest of the people of North Carolina for only the purest of reasons without any consequence to any political options.”
African-Americans have historically been discriminated against in North Carolina communities and in the legal profession. In the early 1900sShaw Universitywas the only law school where African-American students were permitted to attend; however, the law school closed its doors in 1914, leaving no in-state option for African-Americans to receive a formal legal education. On March 1, 1939, the North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 18, which authorized North Carolina Central Universityto establish a law school devoted solely for African-Americans to use. Not until the landmark United States Supreme Court decision, Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 70 S.Ct. 848, 94 L.Ed. 1114 (1950), did the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillfinally begin to integrate the law school with its first five African-American students in 1951. Nearly thirty years later,Henry Ell Fryewas appointed as the first African-American associate justice on the Supreme Court of North Carolina in 1983 and later appointed as the first African-American Chief Justice in 1999.
Women have also have been historically discriminated against in North Carolina communities and in the legal profession. Women were historically not permitted to join the North Carolina Bar, which was further cemented by the United States Supreme Court decision, Bradwell v. Illinois. In that case, the Court ruled that state bars should be able to decide whether or not to admit women. That decision rested on the belief that women did not have a federal constitutional right to pursue a profession. However, Tabitha Ann Holtonchallenged the North Carolina Bar and brought her case to the Supreme Court of North Carolina in 1878. The Court ruled that Holton should be granted acceptance to the North Carolina Bar. As a result, she became the first women in any Southern state to be licensed as an attorney and one of only a few dozen at the time across the country. While women were allowed to practice law as licensed attorneys after that moment, it wouldn’t be until 1962 when Susie Sharpwould be appointed to the Supreme Court of North Carolina as the first female justice in the State’s history. In 1974, she was elected as the first female Chief Justice on a State Supreme Court in the entire country.
Chief Justice Beasley now follows the judicial leaders of Chief Justice Tabitha Ann Holtonand Chief Justice Henry Ell Fryein her role as the first African-American female Chief Justice in the Supreme Court of North Carolina. However, even with the historic significance of her appointment, it does not come without controversy.
- SENIOR ACCOSIATE JUSTICE SKIPPED OVER FOR APPOINTMENT TO CHIEF JUSTICE POSITION.
The appointment of the first American-American woman to the Chief Justice position on the Supreme Court of North Carolina was not the only state tradition broken. It has been traditionin North Carolina judicial history that whenever the Chief Justice position had become vacate, prior to elections, the governor of the State would appoint the current Senior Associate Justice on the Court. There is only one notable exception to the long-standing tradition: Republican Governor James Martinappointed Associate Justice Rhoda Billings as chief justice in 1986 after she had been on the Court for only a year. As a result, Chief Justice Beasley’s appointment is seen as an aberration and brimmed with controversy.
The current Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina is Justice Newby. Justice Paul Newby, born in Asheboro, North Carolina, but raised in Jamestown, North Carolina, has been serving on the Supreme Court of North Carolina since being elected in 2004 and again in 2012. Prior to serving on the Supreme Court of North Carolina, Justice Newbybegan his law practice in Asheville with Van Winkle, Buck, Wall, Starnes, and Davis, P.A. and later served as Vice President and General Counsel of Cannon Mills Realty and Development Corporation in Kannapolis. Afterward, he was appointed as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina in Raleigh where he served for nineteen years.
Justice Newby also actively works to enhance professionalism among North Carolina’s lawyers as chair to the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism. In addition, Justice Newby co-chairs the Chief Justice’s civic education initiative,traveling across North Carolina to meet with school and civic groups to discuss the Supreme Court and the role of the judiciary.
As the senior associate justice, Justice Newby would have been the appointee had this tradition been followed by Governor Cooper. In response to Governor Cooper’s appointment, Justice Newby stated, “Cooper’s choice doesn’t follow tradition of the governor filling a vacant Chief Justice position with the most veteran justice, who over the decades has been usually someone from the governor’s party. In this case, it was a registered Republican.” He went further stating, “The governor’s decision further erodes public trust and confidence in a fair judiciary, free from partisan manipulation.”
Elections of judges and justices in North Carolina were not always partisan. In 2017, the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 100, which allowed voters to know the political affiliation of judicial candidates. Republicansstated the reason for the change is to give voters helpful information to allow them to make an informed decision.
Justice Newby was not the only justice over-looked in Governor Cooper’s decision-making process. The governor also bypassed the longest-serving registered Democrat justice on the court: Associate Justice Robin Hudson. Skepticsbelieve she was passed over due to her age. North Carolina lawrequires that justices and judges retire from there position on the last day of the month they turn seventy-two. Thirty-three other states have similar laws. Justice Hudson will turn seventy-two in 2024. Therefore, if she were appointed, she still would have had to run for the office in 2020, and then she would have to step down half way through her term, as the statute requires. Chief Justice Beasley is fifty-three and Justice Newby is sixty-three.
Additionally, with Justice Beasley’s appointment to the Chief Justice position, her seat as Associate Justice became vacant as well. In response, Governor Cooper appointed Judge Mark Davisas Associate Justice, who was formerly serving as a judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals
- WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Chief Justice Beasley’s appointment is temporary. To retain the role, she must run for the position in 2020. Justice Newby has announcedhe will also be running for the Chief Justice position. Whether critic or supporter of Governor Cooper’s decision to appoint Justice Beasley as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, the voters of North Carolina will have their say on who should hold the position in the 2020 elections.