In this year’s elections, voters will be asked to select a candidate to serve an eight-year term as Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. As we’ve done in previous Supreme Court elections, Lawyers Weekly reached out to both of the candidates on the ballot and asked them to complete our Candidate Q&As. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Q&As were conducted entirely via email.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s responses are provided below. Associate Justice Paul Newby’s responses can be found here.
As a public service, Lawyers Weekly is making its election coverage free to view online without a subscription. We encourage you to share our coverage with your friends and neighbors who may be seeking more information about the candidates, and we greatly appreciate all of the candidates who took time out of their busy schedule to participate.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley – Candidate for Chief Justice
How would you describe your judicial philosophy?
My judicial philosophy is grounded in my commitment to protecting the rights and liberties enshrined in our state and federal Constitutions. I have a long record of respect for core constitutional protections, including the freedom of expression, association, and religion; and the rights to liberty, due process and equal protection of the law. I respect precedent. I adhere to core constitutional values. And I always come to court with an open mind and an objective to do justice in every case. Everybody gets fair treatment in my courtroom.
What do you believe makes you the best candidate to serve as Chief Justice?
The role of the Chief Justice requires both a sharp judicial mind and decisive leadership. As head of the Court, the Chief Justice must shepherd the development of North Carolina’s jurisprudence. And, as head of the entire branch, the Chief Justice must oversee the administration of a multi-million dollar budget and ensure that every local court is equipped to administer justice fairly and efficiently. In my time leading both the Court and the Judicial Branch, I have demonstrated my ability to do both.
I have served as Chief Justice since March of 2019, and my focus has been on improving access to our courts for all North Carolinians. At the Court, we have recodified all of our rule sets and made them available online, for free. We recently adopted the Universal Citation format, enabling us to take advantage of Harvard’s Caselaw Access Project. Every North Carolina appellate court decision is now available online, for free.
At the trial court level, I have worked with chief district court judges to implement School Justice Partnerships in more than one-third of North Carolina’s school districts. We are actively working to expand access to drug and mental health recovery courts. We are leveraging the power of technology to bring electronic filing and online access to court records to every North Carolina county over the next four years. As Chair of the Equal Access to Justice Commission, I launched the Faith and Justice Alliance, which seeks to bring the faith community and the legal profession together to bring court services and legal education and advice into the community in a welcoming and accessible way. All of these efforts shore up public trust and confidence in our judicial system and ensure that our courthouse doors are open to every North Carolinian who needs to avail themselves of the judicial process to protect their legal rights.
And of course my work in 2020 has been largely devoted to the Judicial Branch’s response to COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, I have issued emergency directives to ensure that North Carolinians have access to essential court services and that our courts are providing those services in a way that protects the public health and the health of our court employees.
Unfortunately, North Carolina will likely still be dealing with COVID-19 in 2021. Going forward, how can the Judicial Branch best balance the need for open access to the courts and the need to keep residents safe from the spread of this virus?
Our courts must be open and available to serve the people of North Carolina, as they have been throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March our courts have been conducting as much business as possible remotely, including holding hearings online or by telephone. I have entered a number of emergency directives to reduce the number of people who must physically enter our courthouses, and I have required masks and social distancing in all courtrooms and common areas for those people who do need to be physically present in the courthouse. I anticipate that we will need to continue taking these precautions into the foreseeable future.
We must also safely resume jury trials. I have asked the Senior Resident Superior Court Judges in each county to prepare a plan for resuming jury trials as safely as possible in their districts. These plans must conform to my existing emergency directives, including masking and social distancing requirements, but local officials are otherwise free to craft a plan that takes into consideration the unique conditions and needs of their local population.
Since the beginning of this pandemic, our courts have been flexible, responsive, and focused on the goal of providing essential services in a way that protects the public health. We will need to continue this approach until the danger has passed.
COVID-19 has prompted an unprecedented amount of innovation in our court system, including the use of virtual court hearings. Are there any new practices that have been implemented as a result of COVID-19 that you believe the courts should continue to use even after social distancing has ended?
Virtual hearings have been well received throughout the state, and I anticipate that they will continue to be widely used even after the necessity dissipates. We have also had very positive feedback from court officials and attorneys about innovative scheduling practices, which I expect will continue to be used well into the future. Our COVID-19 Task Force also made a number of recommendations for innovations that could continue to serve the Judicial Branch well after the pandemic has passed and we continue to review those recommendations and evaluate how we might make some of them a reality.
Do you believe that systemic racism is a problem in our criminal justice system? What do you believe the judiciary can and should do to ensure that all residents are afforded equal protection under the law?
The work of improving justice is never done. There will always be more that we can do to ensure that every person is treated fairly and equally in our courtrooms. I am excited about the lawyers and judges from every corner of our state who have reached out to me these last few months to say that they want to be a part of the wonderful progress that is being made. They are ready to lead the way and do the hard work of continually improving our legal system and our profession.
I am also excited about a number of programs that aim to alleviate the disparities we see in our courts. We are rethinking the way fines and fees are assessed in our courts so that people are not punished simply for their inability to pay. We are expanding drug courts and other specialty courts, which focus on rehabilitation and restoration rather than punishment, so that people can move on from the bad decisions of their past to live a successful and productive future. And, we are working with district attorneys across the state to expunge juvenile records and restore drivers licenses to thousands of North Carolinians, giving them the opportunity for a fresh start in life.
Supreme Court candidates now run for office as partisan candidates and are often called upon to resolve partisan political disputes. How can the court ensure that citizens can trust it to resolve all disputes in a fair and objective manner?
A judge’s responsibility is to decide cases based on the law, impartially and without bias. There is no room for partisan politics in that process. In fact, the majority of our Court’s decisions are unanimous, and those that aren’t rarely break down along partisan lines. Our differences of opinion are rooted in the interpretation of the law, our judicial philosophy, and the diversity of our life experiences.
What do you think the state’s judiciary can do or should do to ensure that all citizens have and can afford access to justice?
I think anyone would agree that all people should have equal access to our state’s courts and the justice those courts are charged with delivering. But that access doesn’t just happen—it requires a concerted effort to design systems that are truly accessible and welcoming to the public. Too often, individuals face insurmountable barriers to fully utilizing their courts. I am proud of the work we have done to begin to break down those barriers.
Just last month, we launched Guide & File, a new, user-friendly online tool to help complete standard court forms for legal issues most frequently faced by self-represented litigants, such as name changes, evictions, small estates, and simple divorces.
We also launched NCFairChance.org to aid the public in seeking to have driver’s licenses restored or criminal records expunged. Grace is a core component of our judicial system and every North Carolinian deserves a second chance after a misstep.
We are also partnering with law firms to provide free legal services for our frontline health workers, small businesses and nonprofits. None of these efforts would be successful without the assistance and dedication of hundreds of attorneys around the state who volunteer their time pro bono every year. Together, we will continuously improve access to justice and ensure that our judicial system truly works for every North Carolinian.
Are there any lawyers or judges, either ones you’ve worked with personally or whose work you admire, who have especially influenced your views on how to be a good judge?
I often tell the story of working in the Wake County District Attorney’s Office and meeting then District Court Judge Patricia Timmons-Goodson who then served in Cumberland County but had been assigned to Wake County for a day. As she entered the courtroom, I was completely enthralled by her because it was the first time I had seen an African-American woman presiding as judge. Of course, I would go on to serve on the District Court in Cumberland County, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, just as did she. Justice Timmons-Goodson, now a candidate for the 8th Congressional District, spent her career as a trailblazer, serving as a model to me and so many others. She was an excellent judge before whom I practiced. She was fair, intelligent and understood the gravity of her decisions as a judge at every level. I’m thankful for her example.
What would you consider to be your proudest day or moment of your career to date?
I am proud of so many moments of my service, especially as a district court judge where I daily witnessed people overcoming obstacles and tremendous challenges to lead successful lives. The proudest moment of my career was the day I was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. I was so humbled by his faith in me and by the outpouring of support I experienced. It was stunning to receive thousands of congratulatory notes from around the world, especially the notes I received from girls and young women who saw in my service an opportunity for themselves to serve. I have always recognized that my service is so much greater than me. It is my responsibility to inspire and build relationships, from first grade on, with the next generation of lawyers and judges.
Is there anything we didn’t ask you about that you think it would be good for voters to know to help them make their decision?
We are in the midst of a period of great uncertainty and stress. I know that attorneys all across the state are facing challenges in their practices and in their daily lives. I appreciate the continued partnership between the North Carolina State Bar and the North Carolina Bar Association to provide increased access to mental health and wellness resources during this difficult time. I also greatly appreciate the partnership of the Advocates for Justice and the Association of Defense Attorneys who have displayed tremendous professionalism in bringing their members together throughout the pandemic. I am tremendously hopeful for the future. North Carolinians have a long, proud history of weathering difficult storms and I know that we will pull together, support one another, and emerge stronger and even more united in serving the people of North Carolina.