Wait Is on for NC’s Tightest Race, the NC Supreme Court Chief Justice

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 Sarah Ovaska

November 7, 2020

Less than 4,000 votes separate incumbent NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, D, from her GOP challenger Paul Newby in this too-close-to-call race.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original to reflect unofficial election results as of 7 a.m., Nov. 7.

North Carolina’s court system could see some dramatic changes, depending on the final results of this nail-biter of an election.

There are three races in the state’s highest court that unofficial results from Tuesday show are too close to call. Democrats went into the race hoping to hold or improve on their six-member majority, but are now looking at the chance of losses.

One of those up-in-the-air races is for the top slot of the state’s judicial system. The sitting Chief Justice, Democrat Cheri Beasley, was challenged by her fellow NC Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, a Republican.

Newby is leading by just 3,475 votes in an election in which 5.49 million votes were cast, as of a count of unofficial results Saturday morning.

READ MORE: Cardinal & Pine’s Live Blog on NC’s 2020 Election

Beasley became the first Black woman to sit at the helm of the NC Supreme Court when Gov. Roy Cooper appointed her in 2019. Before that, she had broken another barrier—the first Black woman to be elected to statewide office when voters backed her in her 2008 bid for a seat on the NC Court of Appeals bench. During her tenure as chief justice, she opened up the public’s access to the high court, by streaming oral arguments from the Raleigh courtroom where they meet, and was most recently tasked with guiding the state’s court system through the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that roles, she’s made tough calls on how to operate public courtrooms in the midst of the nation’s biggest public health crisis. 

Newby, her challenger, had been the longest serving and lone Republican on the state Supreme Court, and ran his campaign on promises of judicial restraint. 

Ballot Count Continues

As we all now know, the election in North Carolina is not over though the voting part of it is, with the state’s choice for president, US Senator and the above judicial races still too close to call. (Read an explainer about the routine rate for an official ballot count here.)

In the coming week, the state’s 100 county election boards will process some of the 116,200 outstanding absentee ballots that will be coming in through the mail (provided they were postmarked by Nov. 3) and scrutinizing the state’s 40,766 provisional ballots, according to the NC State Board of Elections. Provisional ballots are given to voters who have potential questions about their eligibility, like being at the wrong precinct, incomplete home address, etc. After all other votes are counted, election officials investigate the provisional ballots to determine their eligibility.

Challenges for Voters in Judicial Election

Not all states elect their judges, but North Carolina does.

 The close partisan split in this year’s statewide judicial races reflect the state’s well-earned reputation of being a purple split with fairly even amounts of Republican and Democratic-leaning voters.

But not all races on the state level followed that down-the-middle split, as seen with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, getting nearly 52% of the unofficial results and Steve Troxler, the Republican Agriculture Commissioners, grabbing almost 54% of the votes.

In judicial races, it can be notoriously difficult for voters to parse out their preferred choices, given that most people don’t have a lot of interaction with the court races that appear far down the ballot, and much less at the appellate level where the statewide races happen. Judges too, with strict ethics rules that dictate how they publicly speak about the case before them, don’t campaign in the same way as other positions given that they can’t pledge to rule a certain way in cases.

The judicial races in North Carolina used to be non-partisan, meaning judges ran without being aligned with a particular political party. But the state legislature returned appellate courts ( the seven-member NC Supreme Court and 15-member NC Court of Appeals) to partisan races back in 2016.

Much of what the court is tasked with, hearing appeals in criminal and civil cases, doesn’t necessarily invoke politics or partisan leanings. But the state’s appeals courts often become the deciders in bitterly disputed issues such as funding of the state’s public schools, redistricting of legislative directors and the steady stream of disputes between Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led legislature.

Republicans Win Seats on NC’s Appellate Courts

Going into the election, the NC Supreme Court, the highest court in the state, had six Democrats, including Beasley, and one Republican, Newby.

The 15-member NC Court of Appeals has eight Democrats and seven Republicans. Five of those seats were up for re-election this year.

In addition to the chief justice seat, the NC Supreme Court race between Lucy Inman, the Democrat incumbent and her Republican challenger, Phil Berger Jr., is also uncertain. Berger is a judge on the state’s lower appeals court, the NC Court of Appeals, and the son of state Senate President Phil Berger. Berger had a lead of 74,072 votes ahead of Inman, according to Saturday’s count of unofficial results.

The third NC Supreme Court seat up for election was won by Republican Tamara Barringer, an attorney and former state senator, with a significant lead over Democrat Mark Davis, according to initial election results and as called by the Associated Press.

The NC Court of Appeals, the lower appeals court in the state, had a bit more clarity with the election results that had come in and were released by Tuesday. Republicans were the big winners from the election, with no Democratic appellate candidate making the cut. 

Here are the results from those races, as called by the Associated Press:

·  April Wood, R, won over Tricia Shields, D.

·  Fred Gore, R, won over Lora Cubbage, D.

·  Chris Dillon, R, won over Gray Styers, D.

·  Jeff Carpenter, R, won over Reuben Young, D.

·  Jefferson G. Griffin, R, won over incumbent Chris Brook, D.  


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