Earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley will be the court’s next chief justice, making her the first African-American woman to serve as chief justice in the 200-year history of the state’s highest court.
Beasley recently sat down with Lawyers Weekly reporter Bill Cresenzo, in the courtroom she will soon preside over, to talk about the court, its future, and her new role in the state’s judiciary. The following is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you find out that you were appointed, and what was your reaction to getting the news?
I received a call and met with the governor, who later made a public announcement. I was absolutely elated, and I am honored he has placed his trust and confidence in my abilities to serve as chief justice.
As the new chief justice, what new initiatives or priorities are you looking to implement or advance that are important to you personally?
For now, I am really excited about leading the court and the Judicial Branch and making sure I provide support for the wonderful trial judges that we have, the elected clerks, and the public defenders and district attorneys and magistrates and others folks who are stakeholders in our Judicial Branch, and making sure that we have a great relationship with the legislature and with all of the branches of government to make sure we are serving the people of North Carolina the way we should be.
What are the greatest challenges and issues that the judiciary is facing right now, or you think you will be facing in the near future, that are going to require your leadership in this position to address?
All of the cases that come before the court are very important. The cases present very important issues, not just for parties that come before the court, but for the state of North Carolina. We are a growing state, and our caseloads are growing and our resources are stretched. We have remarkable people who are serving in our courts and who are doing the very best they can. They are doing a remarkable job with limited resources. We will find ways to work through these challenges, and I am looking forward to working with a lot of folks who are doing the work every day and will necessarily need to be a part of the solutions.
I know you and current Chief Justice Mark Martin have been working very closely to ensure a smooth transition. What have you learned from Justice Martin about how to do the job of a chief justice?
Chief Justice Mark Martin has been supportive in this transition period. He has been great about sharing information about where the court system is and some things that need immediate attention. He has been really great in offering his thoughts in making this transition. He has willingly agreed to continue to be a resource and to be available if I have questions about matters that are before the court or that are before us as a branch. I am delighted that he has been available and resourceful in so many ways. I certainly wish him well as he goes on to serve as dean of the Regent University School of Law.
The North Carolina Supreme Court is well-known for its culture of collegiality. What will you do to ensure that remains the case even as judicial elections are becoming more and more like other partisan political elections?
One of the many benefits of working with the people who are currently serving on the court is that we do indeed have a very collegial court. I am excited about working with each member individually and collectively, and I am really excited about the fact that each of them is committed to doing the work of the court. We have relationships among each other outside our electoral process, and I have absolutely every expectation that each of us will continue to be collegial and committed to doing the work of the court and making sure the Supreme Court of North Carolina remains one of the best courts in the country. And I’m proud of that.
You are the first African-American female chief justice in the history of North Carolina, and one of the very few in the history of the United States. What are your thoughts on being a pioneer?
It is certainly not lost on me, the magnitude of the moment. It is indeed an honor to have been appointed by the governor to serve as chief justice. It is a wonderful opportunity for all of us as North Carolinians and Americans to really celebrate diversity–diversity of talent, and acknowledgement of talent, especially during Black History Month and as the court commemorates its 200th anniversary and to think about how wonderfully far North Carolina has come. This is not the court of 100, 200 years ago. It is a wonderful acknowledgment of the advancements in North Carolina and wonderful acknowledgment of where North Carolina is and wants to be.
Who are some of the judges or attorneys who have most influenced you in your career and how you will approach your new position?
There are so many lawyers and judges who have been such a remarkable part of my professional and civic journey. Honestly, the list is a profound one. The one I’d like to mention here is Justice [Patricia] Timmons-Goodson, as she was the first African-American woman to serve on this court and is certainly is a trailblazer in her own right. I mention her specifically because I think it is important that we think about the importance of diversity and think about the importance of the people of North Carolina having confidence in our courts and having confidence and belief in the people who serve us all. She has wonderfully modeled good service, good character, a good sense of humor, and great intellect. She has graciously held not just the position of associate justice of this court, but she is currently serving as vice chair of the United States Civil Rights Commission. In every position she holds, she appreciates that it is a position of service to all people. She is a fantastic champion in understanding and believing in the rights of all.
What is something about you that North Carolina lawyers may be surprised to learn?
The N.C. Bar Association has posted on Twitter a tribute that I made for retiring district court judge Herbert Richardson in Robeson County. The “Ode to Judge Richardson” was in the form a rap. It was a lot of fun. Judge Richardson has a wonderful sense of humor. It was during the annual Buck Harris Dinner, which is held during the holidays. It’s always a fun, jovial evening where lawyers and judges can really come together and laugh with each other, and at each other, when necessary.
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw