North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has bucked the tradition of elevating the next most experienced associate justice to be the interim Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court in favor of a black female associate justice from his own party.
Cooper announced on Tuesday that he has chosen to put Associate Justice Cheri Beasley into Chief Justice spot that is being vacated by the current Chief Justice Mark Martin. In doing so, Cooper, in fact, bypassed not one, but two current Associate Justices with far more experience on the high court.
— Governor Roy Cooper (@NC_Governor) February 12, 2019
Beasley will be the first black female Chief Justice on North Carolina’s Supreme Court and will begin her duties on March 1.
North Carolina’s only other black chief justice was Henry Frye (1991-2001), but three women have served as Chief Justice in the state: Rhoda Billings, Sarah Parker, and Susie Sharp. Lorna Lockwood in Arizona was the first woman in the country to serve as chief justice of a state supreme court in two one-year long terms during 1965 and 1970.
“Chief Justice Mark Martin has admirably served our state for years, and I wish him well in his new role,” said Governor Cooper in a press release. “Justice Beasley is a well-respected jurist, and I know her to be fair and deeply committed to viewing all North Carolinians equally through the eyes of the law. I appreciate Justice Beasley’s willingness to serve the people of our state in this critical role.”
Current Chief Justice Mark Martin announced in January that he was leaving the North Carolina Supreme Court to pursue a role as a Dean at a Virginia law school.
“I’m excited about the fact that North Carolina has moved forward, that we do have a diverse court and it’s so important that people feel good and have the confidence in the work that we do,” Beasley said at a press conference on Tuesday.
Beasley said it wasn’t lost on her that she was being appointed interim chief justice during Black History Month.
“I hope it’s a show of symbolism for where we are in North Carolina. This is certainly not the North Carolina of 200 years ago,” Beasley said during the press conference.
“I’m going to pick the best person that I can pick for the job,” said Governor Cooper during the announcement of the appointment.
Cheri Beasley, who has only six years on the high court under her belt, was appointed in 2012 by former Governor Beverly Perdue. Beasley was elected to the seat in 2014 after barely beating Republican Mike Robinson by less than a quarter of a percentage point.
Cooper passed over Paul Newby, the Senior Associate Justice and the only Republican left on the court. Newby has almost 15 years of experience as a state supreme court justice having been first elected in 2004.
Governor Cooper also bypassed Associate Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat, who has 12 years of experience and was elected to the state supreme court in 2007. Hudson is in her second term which expires in 2022.
Many saw the passing over of more qualified candidates as the governor advancing his own party for political gain.
“I wish Justice Beasley well in her new role. However, I am disappointed that Governor Cooper has ignored the decades-old precedent of appointing the most senior member of the court as chief justice. A reasonable conclusion is that he decided to pass over Justice Newby because of his party affiliation,” said Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger in a statement.
Governor Cooper himself politically linked the chief justice job to the 2020 election in his press conference remarks by saying that ‘the people will decide’ if his pick of Cheri Beasley was the right one.
“The people will be the ultimate decider of this because whoever is chosen will stand for election in 2020,” Cooper said.
Newby said that his qualifications speak for themselves and that he was disappointed in the political gamesmanship taking place.
“Sadly, today Governor Cooper decided to place raw partisan politics over a non-partisan judiciary by refusing to honor the time-tested tradition of naming the Senior Associate Justice as Chief Justice,” said Senior Justice Newby in a statement. “The Governor’s decision further erodes public trust and confidence in a fair judiciary, free from partisan manipulation. I look forward to placing my qualifications before the voters in 2020.”
“Today Governor Cooper decided to skip over two more experienced justices and elevated a justice with less Supreme Court experience to the open post of Chief Justice,” said North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes in a statement.
“One can only believe the reason Cooper decided to ignore the longstanding, nonpartisan tradition of the Court was purely politics,” Hayes said. “Cooper’s constant calls to keep our courts free from political interference rings hollow with this decision.”
The appointment of the first black woman to be a North Carolina Chief Justice may be historic, but Cooper may also have just made a historic blunder.
Currently, the Democrats hold six of the seven seats but by bypassing Newby and elevating Beasley, three of the seven possible seats are now up for grabs in 2020 – the Chief Justice seat, Newby’s seat, and Beasley’s old seat.
Associate Justice Newby’s current term will end in 2020 and he has already stated that he will seek the Chief Justice position.
Beasley’s seat is not up until 2022, but by appointing her to the Chief spot leaves her seat open for a replacement in the next election cycle as well.
Already in the running for those seats are two Republicans, former General Assembly Senator Tamara Barringer and North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge Phil Berger, Jr.
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A.P. Dillon is the North Carolina Bureau Chief for The Tennesee Star and a reporter at Battleground State News. Follow A.P. Dillon on Twitter. Email Tips to [email protected].
Photo “Cheri Beasley” by Roy Cooper.