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New chief justice means shake-up atop NC's court system

Posted January 12, 2021 5:04 p.m. EST
Updated January 12, 2021 5:06 p.m. EST

— The hiring of a new top administrator of North Carolina's court system is one of several significant personnel changes in a shake-up atop the state Judicial Branch since Chief Justice Paul Newby was sworn in this month.

Newby, a Republican, chose special Superior Court Judge Andrew Heath as the next director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, a role he began last Friday. Heath had been the state budget director under then-Gov. Pat McCrory and a previous chairman of the North Carolina Industrial Commission, which adjudicates workers' compensation claims.

At least five employees, some with decades of experience within AOC, are now gone, including McKinley Wooten, whom Heath replaced. The AOC's most recent deputy director, general counsel and a lobbyist of the legislature for the agency are no longer reporting to work, according to Judicial Branch spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell.

These are “at-will” positions, such that the employees aren’t subject to the same job protections that rank-and-file workers receive. The chief justice, who leads the branch of government, has the authority to hire their preferred AOC director and other top staff.

Newby, who had been an associate justice, was elevated to chief justice after narrowly defeating Democratic incumbent Cheri Beasley in November by just 401 votes. Heath administered the oath of office to Newby on Jan. 1. Democrats had held a 6-1 command in seats on the state's high court last year but that majority narrowed to 4-3 after the November elections.

In response to whether these employees were dismissed or resigned, Heath said in an emailed statement that “the transition occurred in leadership positions such as you would expect when any leader of a branch of government wins an election." Such a rapid replacement in this branch of government, however, is uncommon.

According to the Judicial Branch and personnel records, among those no longer working after Friday are Deputy Director Danielle Carman; General Counsel Tina Krasner; Andrew Simpson, chief counsel for policy and intergovernmental affairs; and Mildred Spearman, an organizational learning and development officer. Wooten's last day was Thursday, Gladwell wrote in an email. All of them will receive their salary into next month, she said.

Krasner's and Carman's work experience with the Judicial Branch began in the 1990s. Carman left the department in the 2010s to work for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a civil rights group, before returning in 2019. Wooten, who was the first Black AOC director, joined state government as a magistrate in 1992. He been acting or permanent director for nearly two years, according to records.

Heath released a memo announcing several new hires that began work on Monday. They included new general counsel Trey Allen and Ryan Boyce, who will in part lead the AOC’s legislative and intergovernmental affairs division. Allen is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Government, while Boyce worked previously with Newby and AOC.

The Judicial Branch employs over 6,400 workers in Raleigh at courthouses and other buildings in all 100 counties.

In the memo, Heath told employees: “Rest assured that we share the same desire to modernize technology, provide programs and services to our courts, and assist and equip the courts with the tools, training, and resources needed to administer equal justice for all.”

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The story has been corrected to show that Danielle Carman returned to the Judicial Branch in 2019, not in 2020.

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