[Editor’s note: As part of our ongoing effort to inform North Carolinians about the state judiciary, Policy Watch is publishing a series of Q&A’s over the coming weeks with the candidates seeking statewide judicial office this fall. Each of the 16 candidates (six who are contesting three Supreme Court seats and ten who are contesting five seats on the Court of Appeals) was asked the same seven questions by former PW Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter Melissa Boughton. Candidates were not given instructions about the length of their responses, which have been edited only for grammar.
Regrettably, unlike in 2018 when all candidates responded to our inquiries, some did not provide answers this year. To help inform voters in these cases, we will provide links to the unresponsive candidate’s website as well as available information about any public debates in which both candidates for the race in question have participated, or are expected to participate.]
Installment #1 in the series focuses on the race for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court is made up of the chief and six associate justices. Each justice serves an eight-year term. The court is the last stop for litigation involving decisions of state law. Some recent high-profile cases taken up by the state Supreme Court have included redistricting disputes, separation of powers battles between the governor and the legislature, and the fight between the State Board of Education and the state Superintendent over who controls the state’s $10 billion public school system.
Name: Cheri Beasley
Party affiliation: Democrat
What characteristics do you believe make a good judge, and why should North Carolinians vote for you?
Judicial experience is an asset for service on the state’s highest court. I have served as a trial judge and on both of our state’s appellate courts, the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. A good judge follows the law and is not swayed by popular opinion. A good judge and a good chief justice is courageous: courage to follow the law, courage to not bow to the pressure in high profile cases, courage to be just. I have served 21 years as a jurist and was appointed to serve as the chief justice in February 2019. I have been courageous in entering emergency directives (orders) to greatly reduce the number of cases we were hearing in all of our courts across the state [during the health pandemic]. As chief justice, it has been my priority to make sure that safety is paramount in our more than 300 court facilities across the state while still allowing courts to handle the most emergent needs.
I have also led our courts in honest, constructive conversations and am planning continuing education for our judges and other court personnel. It takes courage to lead and to advocate for the Judicial Branch. I was the first chief justice in the nation to address the pandemic in statewide courts and to address racial disparities in courts.
How will you balance being an independent judge and an elected official?
I have balanced being an independent judge and an elected official for 21 years. I speak nationally in favor of an independent judiciary and on fair judicial selection. My record demonstrates that I have never made a court decision because of pressure or because my election lay in the balance. I have been motivated by addressing justice in our courts and outside of our courts with the many programs I have promoted and begun to address access-to-justice issues.
How has COVID-19 changed your election campaigning if at all?
COVID-19 has greatly impacted my campaign. Normally I would be traveling across the state and meeting with voters. Now all campaign events are virtual which makes it more difficult to reach as many people. It’s also a lot of fun to see old friends and to meet new ones and I miss those opportunities. I’m also mindful that many are facing great challenges because of COVID-19. I always want to be respectful of those challenges and never ask more of people than is appropriate.
Do you believe systemic racism permeates our criminal justice system? If so, how do you plan to dismantle it to ensure equal access to justice for all North Carolinians under the law?
I am excited that though we have seen thousands of protesters across North Carolina and the nation, these challenges allow us to address the racial disparities openly and honestly. This opportunity allows us as court leaders and me as Chief Justice to address disparities which are supported by evidence-based data. We can ill afford to discount the resounding cry of thousands of North Carolinians protesting in our communities. I have developed a commission which will address racial disparities in our courts. In addition, I have already started the NC Faith & Justice Alliance which is equipped to train clergy to identify legal issues and allow places of worship to host legal clinics led by volunteer lawyers.
How do you define injustice?
Injustice is grounded in unfairness. Injustice is caused by disparate treatment among parties or by the lack of understanding about how the law applies to a case or caused by an unfair court ruling.
To what extent do you believe that a judge should or should not defer to actions of a legislature?
It is the role of the judge to adhere to the laws as made by the legislature. It is the role of the courts to interpret and apply the laws as set by the legislature. It is not the role of the judge to make the law.
What are the biggest changes you think North Carolina needs to make to its judicial system?
It is important to remember that, overall, our judicial system is a good one. As North Carolina seeks to attract businesses, the Judicial Branch needs updated technology as we still rely on MS-DOS in all of our courts! I am excited that since I have become Chief Justice, we have signed a contract to completely overhaul our technology to create e-courts. We also need more employees, [personal protective equipment], and funding. I am hopeful that we will increase veterans courts, drug treatment courts and increased funding.
Name: Paul Newby
Party affiliation: Republican
Note: Newby did not respond to multiple emails over a two-week period asking for his participation in the Policy Watch voter guide Q&A.
Newby and Beasley appeared jointly on WUNC TV on Aug. 31. Both are also scheduled to appear at a debate sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society on Sept. 10. at 1 p.m.