When Paul Newby became North Carolina’s 30th Supreme Court chief justice on Jan. 1, he took office in an environment very different from any of his 29 predecessors. After taking part in the state’s first-ever virtual investiture, he takes the helm of a judicial branch that is charged with providing fair and timely justice while it continues to grapple with the challenges of the pandemic.
Newby fielded questions from Lawyers Weekly reporter Bill Cresenzo about the judiciary, the pandemic, and other issues that will impact the practice of law in the coming years. All questions were submitted and answered via email.
People are already starting to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but this remains a critical juncture in the pandemic with the risk of new variants of the disease spreading. How do you plan to ensure that the courts can do their jobs while also working to keep court personnel and the community at large safe from the pandemic?
Article 1, Section 18 of the Constitution of North Carolina provides that “all courts shall be open” and “justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.” In response to this mandate, I issued an order that empowers local judicial officials to make COVID-related decisions about their individual courthouse operations in such a way that balances our commitment to safety with the North Carolina constitutional mandate that courts shall be open. I made a request of Governor Cooper, which he graciously granted, that court personnel be given frontline essential worker status for vaccine prioritization. I believe that early access to vaccines, coupled with adherence to NCDHHS and CDC virus prevention guidelines, will enhance the judicial branch’s ability to honor our state constitution’s mandate that our courts remain open while keeping people safe.
As the first anniversary of the first closures approaches, what plans do you have for helping to clear out the backlog of cases that’s built up over the last year?
All local judicial branch stakeholders have conscientiously worked to limit a backlog of cases. To assist them, we have developed a wide range of innovative technology and tools. Now, many hearings can be conducted virtually using video conferencing software, helping prevent a further backlog of cases. We are working to provide needed resources in each county to help them address the backlog that does exist.
Last year we saw a number of extraordinary firsts, with an unprecedented amount of judicial functions being moved online. What do you think has worked well and might continue to be utilized even after the pandemic has passed? On the other hand, is there anything that you’re particularly eager to see return back to normal?
Our judicial branch stakeholders have reported that conducting virtual hearings under proper circumstances has been very effective and efficient. Our Supreme Court has conducted virtual sessions of court since April of last year. Part of those virtual sessions has been livestreaming all oral arguments, which makes the Supreme Court of North Carolina more accessible to every citizen and helps fulfill our constitutional mandate that “all courts shall be open.” These innovations should continue to be available. On the other hand, we all crave the in-person contacts that are now limited. We long for in-person opportunities to return.
For several years now, Lawyers Weekly has written extensively about the volume of opinions authored by the Supreme Court, particularly in civil cases. Do you think the Supreme Court is producing a sufficiently robust body of case law, and do you think the court could or should be doing more?
In 2020, we issued 89 opinions in our regular cases. In addition, we decided 79 termination of parental rights cases. Our output for 2020 was 168 written opinions. Of note, very few were per curiam.
In the past, I have agreed that the Supreme Court should hear more cases. For example, from 2011-2015 we decided an average of 57 cases per year. However, from 2016-2020, we decided an average of 79 cases per year. This increase in case load is attributable to the Court’s granting more petitions for discretionary review and the General Assembly’s having granted the Supreme Court direct appellate review of Business Court cases. I think deciding 75 to 85 cases per year is an appropriate number for a state’s highest appellate court.
You prevailed in a historically and unprecedentedly close election, winning by 401 votes out of almost 5.4 million cast. What was it like going through that recount process with the margin so close, and what are your thoughts as you reflect back on that whole experience?
It was an interesting spiritual journey from election night until there was a concession. My wonderful wife Macon and I had a truly special time of prayer as we asked God for integrity in the election process. On winning, my first reaction was, “Thank you, Lord!” As a person of faith, I understand that outcomes like that are in His hands. Reflecting back on that experience, I see how truly every vote matters. I have always enjoyed studying history—little did I know I would make it. I am humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to serve as the 30th chief justice of our state.
What was it like participating in the state’s first-ever virtual investiture ceremony?
While all of the newly elected justices would have preferred an in-person event, we are grateful to all those who made the virtual investiture a reality. We in the appellate courts are fortunate to be supported by a very talented and hardworking technology staff. They were able to seamlessly transition from in person to virtual investiture ceremonies. I admire the way that our technology staff was able to coordinate eight appellate investitures during the first two weeks in January. While I missed the personal interactions that come with an in person ceremony, I was grateful that we were able to perform ceremonies that included our close family members and allowed for easy access by the media and public. The investitures are currently available to watch on the NCCourts YouTube channel. I thank my colleagues for the opportunity to do an in-person investiture ceremony once conditions permit the Supreme Court to safely return.
A new election often brings change at the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, but there was an unusually comprehensive and swift change among the AOC’s top officials this month. What prompted that wholesale shakeup in AOC leadership?
I believe we have a constitutional mandate that “all courts shall be open” and “justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.” In light of this mandate, it is imperative to empower local courthouse officials to make wise decisions about how to safely operate their courthouses. The role of the Administrative Office of the Courts is to be the premier service agency, assisting and equipping local trial courts to properly administer justice. Given this approach, it was important to bring in qualified people who share this vision. Top level personnel changes are typical when the head of a branch of our state government changes.
Finally, what do you see as being the biggest challenges facing the state’s judiciary over the next eight years, and how to do want to address them?
Our first challenge is to fulfill our constitutional mandates. In addition to courts being physically open, we must ensure that North Carolinians have appropriate access to the courts. In furtherance of that goal, the judicial branch will be moving ahead with the transition to our statewide electronic case management system, eCourts, by beginning pilot programs this summer.
Included in our constitutional mandate is that justice shall be administered without favor, which requires us to ensure equal justice for all. We must build public trust and confidence that our judicial branch does in fact administer justice fairly to everyone. Further, our mandate also requires us to administer justice without delay. We must address the backlog of cases—justice delayed is justice denied. A critical part of meeting these challenges will be understanding what technological advances developed during the pandemic should stay and ensuring that judicial branch officials have access to needed tools to administer justice without favor, denial, or delay.
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw