As Parties Battle Over Ginsburg Seat, NC Chief Justice Beasley Says Courts Should Be Above It

Former NC Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (center), was the first Black woman to serve as the top judge on North Carolina's high court. (Photo from Beasley campaign).

By Max Millington

September 24, 2020

Beasley, the first Black woman to lead NC’s Supreme Court, shares memories of Ginsburg, and talks about the role of the courts in the nation’s ongoing racial justice movement.

The untimely death of one of the nation’s most revered political figures has brought a crucial matter to the forefront. As Americans revere the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the decision of who will fill the now vacant US Supreme Court seat seems imminent as President Trump announced he expects to name a replacement by the end of the week. 

Cheri Beasley (D), chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, spoke to Cardinal & Pine about the gravity of the SCOTUS selection, the role of the state supreme court, and the highlights of Justice Ginsburg’s last visit to NC. 

Beasley became the first Black woman to be elected to any statewide office in NC without being first appointed by a governor when she was elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008. She joined the state’s highest court in 2012 and became the first African-American woman appointed as chief justice in 2019. Beasley is running for re-election in November against NC Supreme Court Judge Paul Martin Newby.

C&P: What stood out to you the most about Justice Ginsburg?

Beasley: She had come to North Carolina in 2007 for a celebration of women chief justices in Supreme Courts across the nation. At that time, there were 13. Just a year ago, and I had a chance to meet her and spend some time with her and all those years later, she remembered that there were 13 women chief justices and she was very pleased when I told her that now our numbers are 18 and that I was one of them. 

She was warm and engaging and clearly very interested. People who are not lawyers consider the work of judges pretty dry. However, she was really able to add not just a sense of scholarship, but really a sense of pizzazz and relatability, to her work into her life. Everybody has to have some level of appreciation for who she was as a person, as well as a Supreme Court justice.

Kelli Midgley, center, an English teacher from Baltimore, joins people gathered at the Supreme Court to honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Ginsburg’s death leaves a vacancy that could be filled by a more conservative justice by President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

C&P: Why does it matter who fills the US Supreme Court seat?

Beasley: President Trump has already indicated that he (might) nominate a Latina and Vice President Biden has indicated that he intends to, if given the chance, nominate an African-American woman. 

I think everybody recognizes that diversity is important and diversity in every sense of the word. By way of race, gender, diversity of thought and in so many ways, professional and personal experiences. I don’t think it’s lost on anyone how important diversity is on our nation’s highest court, as well as all of our courts.

C&P: Why does it matter how soon the seat is filled?

Beasley: Certainly the current president would like to be able to fill that vacancy before the election or certainly before the next presidential term. Assuming Vice President Biden wins, he would certainly like to be the one to make that nomination. The Senate and those who are engaged in that will all determine the timeframe for Justice Ginsburg’s replacement. So we’ll all have to see how that happens.

C&P: What are the key differences between the state Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court? 

Beasley: Our state Supreme Court can address state constitutional and state statutory issues and federal constitution issues. The US Supreme Court only addresses federal constitutional issues. 

As you can well imagine, the US Supreme Court is asked by people or parties from all over the nation to hear their appeals and it only takes a few of those requests, maybe 80 requests roughly, in a given year. The Supreme Court of North Carolina doesn’t receive as many requests, but we hear probably about 110 cases per year. 

C&P: Could you describe how the state supreme court affects the day to day life of North Carolinians?

Beasley: For example, a trial court might hear a case about a car wreck and if the case gets to the Supreme Court of North Carolina whatever the decision is, in that case, affects every single car wreck case that is like it and where that law applies in that kind of case. 

The chief justice leads the Supreme Court of North Carolina but she also leads the entire judicial branch of government. And so it’s been my orders that have made sure that we are addressing the pandemic and a safe way for court officials and employees, but also for the public who use our courts, and balancing that safety with the need to hear cases as efficiently and expeditiously as possible. 

Additionally, we all know what happened around George Floyd and we continue to see thousands of people across North Carolina and the nation protesting around racial disparities in governmental entities and corporations, and certainly courts. It really is my responsibility to acknowledge that those concerns are valid and that we need to address and think about how we can make sure we’re having fair and just outcomes. Many of my efforts have been around restoring trust and confidence in our courts.

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C&P: There’s a sense that US Supreme Court judges are beholden to decisions based on the party that nominated them to the seat. What is your opinion on that sensibility?

Beasley: Well, I’m not sure that necessarily bears out. Though judges in North Carolina are elected, the justices on the Supreme Court of the United States all have lifetime appointments. So they really don’t have to be beholden to anybody. They can’t and that’s the purpose of them having lifetime appointments, that they can be free to be independent judges, and make the decisions according to the rule of law.

C&P: One of the key fallouts of the pandemic has been under employment and layoffs that have led to evictions. What do you envision the state courts doing about these cases?

Well, as the chief justice, I certainly am very much aware of the impact of COVID-19. I have entered several orders to try to keep people safe, but also allow that many of our cases still be heard. 

One of the things I’m doing is trying to work with the governor’s office on creating an eviction mediation program. We’re hopeful that landlords and tenants will be able to work out any disputes that they might have, so that people don’t lose their housing, but there are many efforts being made locally and statewide around how best to address that issue.


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