Editorial: N.C. Chief Justice Beasley leaves legacy to emulate

Friday, Dec. 18, 2020 -- N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley's determined, concerned and compassionate administration of the state's justice system, since March of this year when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the state and nation, is a lofty legacy to which incoming Chief Justice Paul Newby should aspire.

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CBC Editorial: Friday, Dec. 18, 2020; Editorial #8619
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company.

If Paul Newby thinks it is his judicial philosophy and ideological approach to interpreting the North Carolina and U.S. Constitutions that will be the hallmark of his time as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, he might look to his predecessor for a more realistic view.

The decisions he’ll be making over the next several months concerning operations of the courts – from filings of legal actions such as evictions, trials in local traffic courts to high-profile jury trials – will likely loom larger in his legacy than any opinions he’ll render during the next eight years of his term on the court.

Newby will take over the court – and with it the administrative leadership of North Carolina’s judicial system – at the start of the new year when current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley leaves.

Beasley became the first African American woman to be chief justice in March 2019. She’d served on the state’s highest court since 2012. She was defeated by a mere 401 votes in her effort to keep her job -- the closest statewide election in North Carolina history.

Less than a year later, that ground-breaking achievement has been overshadowed by her determined, concerned and compassionate administration of the state’s justice system since March of this year when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the state and nation. She leaves a lofty legacy to which Newby should aspire.

The administration of justice, by its nature, is face-to-face, up-close and personal. Defendants and plaintiffs confront each other in courtrooms where judges preside as jurors assess evidence and render verdicts. Courtrooms are public – as mandated by the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment and by Section 18 of the Declaration of Rights in North Carolina’s Constitution.

Courthouses in each of the state’s 100 counties are crossroads where people from all aspects of life and station intersect as they transact the routines of public life.

On March 13th of this year, 13 months after Gov. Roy Cooper named her chief justice, Beasley issued her first directives to deal with the pandemic. Clerks of court were to make sure notices were posted that people who might have been exposed to COVID-19 not enter the courthouse.

Routine Superior and District court proceedings were suspended unless they could be conducted remotely, were to deal with an emergency or due process. She also gave the senior judges in judicial districts discretion to make decisions on proceedings – giving critical consideration to protecting the health and safety of all those involved.

Those initial moves were imposed for 30 days. As Beasley, and the rest of us came to see, it was just the start and unfortunately far from a conclusion. She’s issued more than 22 separate emergency directives. As recently as this week, has extended them -- closing courts for 30 days to all non-essential business -- as the pandemic has stubbornly spread, infections increased and the death toll now exceeds 6,000.

As she’s worked to keep courts functioning, but safe, calls racial justice arose around the nation. Beasley didn’t flinch. She appointed a COVID-19 task force to develop and recommend emergency directives and policy changes related to the COVID-19 health emergency. She followed its advice. She welcomed the work that has come from the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice established by the governor.

"These are unprecedented times," Beasley said in a June 26 statement. "The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges the modern judiciary and our courts have never before faced and calls for racial justice have gripped the nation's attention. But challenging times also present opportunities."

The process of dealing with the pandemic required the judicial system to use tools, technologies and resources that hadn’t been tired or embraced. Now many have become routine ways of doing business.

There’s little glamour in making sure a job gets done – no matter how challenging the circumstances.

It is not the stuff of banner headlines and viral social media posts.

But it is the mark of competence that has nothing to do with partisanship or politics. Beasley displays the deep commitment to serving the public and upholding justice that we expect, but should not take for granted, from a chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

She’ll be leaving a tough act for Newby to follow. He’d be wise to emulate her example.