Cheri Beasley made history this week when Gov. Roy Cooper announced that she would become the state’s first Black woman to be chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Beasley stood between the Governor and her husband, Curtis, as she spoke about the significance of her appointment, particularly during Black History Month.
“This court this year is coming right at 200 years, and this is certainly not the North Carolina of 200 years ago,” she said. “And so 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 a confidence in the work that we do, and so I’m excited about continuing to do that work.”
The other thing that comes to mind when thinking about her leadership as a Black woman is “the little girls along the way who ought to have a sense of promise and hope for their futures,” Beasley said.
“I hope that in some way my service inspires young people especially, but really I hope it’s a show of symbolism for where we are in North Carolina.”
Beasley, who has been involved with the state judiciary for more than 20 years, is known for mentoring and working with young people. Colleagues described her as a tireless worker with vast legal knowledge and a passion for justice.
“I am truly excited about the opportunity to see Justice Beasley (now Madame Chief Justice Beasley) at the helm of the Judicial Branch,” said Denaa Griffin, a Raleigh attorney who was mentored by and worked for Beasley. “With her experience and commitment to justice, this historic appointment is certainly timely for the State’s Judicial Branch. As now Madame Chief Justice Beasley’s former intern, former research assistant, and mentee, I stand behind her fully as she steps into this next chapter of our State’s history.”
“I believe that Justice Beasley is a tremendous selection for our Supreme Court,” said Justice Mike Morgan, who was elected in 2016. “She is passionate about justice for everyone, not just in this court but in cases heard throughout the state.”
Morgan said he, like Beasley, hopes her appointment shows how far the state has come on race.
“North Carolina’s strength is in its diversity of people,” he said. “I believe that this is another indication that North Carolina is continuing to progress.”
In its history, 95 justices have served on the Supreme Court. Of that number, only seven have been people of color and only one of those seven – Henry Frye – has served as long as a full term of eight years.
Beasley previously served on the state Court of Appeals – where she was the first Black woman to win election to a statewide office in North Carolina without having been previously appointed to the position – and as a district court judge for the 12th judicial district in Cumberland County.
She has been a justice on the high court for seven years and will succeed current Chief Justice Mark Martin. He announced at the end of last month that he would resign Feb. 28 to become dean of Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va.
His unexpected departure from the court has left Republicans scrambling to maintain some balance on the bench, which has shifted to the left in recent years. The state Republican Party urged Cooper to appoint Senior Associate Justice Paul Newby, who is the only person on the court affiliated with the party.
Beasley’s appointment to the chief justice position also leaves another vacancy on the bench for Cooper to appoint. He has not yet announced whom he will choose, but it could shift the court’s balance to a 6-1 Democratic majority.
When Cooper was asked Tuesday whether he felt any obligation to appoint a Republican to the new vacancy, he said he would pick the best person for the job. He expects to make an announcement in the next week or so.
“There are a lot of people with legal talent in North Carolina who could serve on the state Supreme Court,” he said. “Clearly we have an excellent court there now, and many of those could serve as chief justice, but we will consider input from the public. We solicit people to write letters and give us calls as to people or particular attributes you might [want us to] consider.”
He added that the people would be the ultimate decider of who would serve on the court, since both the chief justice position and the subsequent vacancy would be up for election in 2020.
Newby has already said he will run for chief justice and two other Republicans have announced they will run to fill Beasley and Newby’s vacancies: Phil Berger Jr., who currently serves on the state Court of Appeals (he is also the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger), and former state Senate member Tamara Barringer, a Wake County attorney.
State Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Inman, a Democrat, has also announced her intention to run for a seat on the high court.
Cooper said he considered outside people for the appointment, but Beasley was the “right person at the right time.” He highlighted her background and commended her experience.
“Justice Beasley has long been a leader, both in and out of the courtroom,” he said. “She’s mentored students, aspiring attorneys and new judges. … I know Justice Beasley to be fair and deeply committed to viewing all North Carolinians equally through the eyes of the law.”
Newby released a statement on Twitter criticizing the Governor for his choice. He said he looked forward to putting his qualifications before the people.
“Sadly, today, Gov. 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,” he stated. “The Governor’s decision further erodes public trust and confidence in a fair judiciary, free from partisan manipulation.”
The state Republican Party also criticized the pick, suggesting Cooper’s choice to pick Beasley over Newby and Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat who has also served more time than Beasley, was purely political.
Hudson did not respond to a request for comment about her colleague’s appointment.
Republicans have contended that Cooper broke tradition by not appointing the most senior justice on the court. The Administrative Office of the Court could not confirm that since they don’t keep track of senior associate positions through human resources.
Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Martin, who had the longest tenure on the high court with more than 20 years on the bench. He was a senior associate justice at the time.
Democrats rebutted the tradition argument by pointing to Jim Martin’s appointment of Justice Rhoda Billings as chief justice in 1986, after she had been on the court for a year.
Republicans have been trying to retain power over the courts for the past two years. In 2016, there was talk of GOP legislators considering a rare court-packing move to keep partisan control after Morgan’s election victory over Republican incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds.
When that fizzled, Republican lawmakers hatched a plan to redistrict state courts in an effort to get more GOP judges on the bench. They had also proposed legislation to transfer judicial appointment power from Cooper to the General Assembly and considered plans to change judicial selection altogether.
Beasley seemed undeterred by the criticism Tuesday.
“It is absolutely not lost on me that this week this nation will celebrate Valentine’s Day, and I think it must be fitting, because I am certainly feeling love,” she said.
Beasley said she was excited to continue working with her colleagues and to work with others in the judicial system, like court clerks and law enforcement. She wants to make sure the justice system is sound.
“I know that we will find successes along the way, especially through our commitment and our pursuit of justice for all people,” she said.
Beasley was initially appointed to the Supreme Court in 2012 by former Gov. Bev Perdue to replace retiring Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson. She ran for re-election in 2014 and won a full term, which was to expire in 2022. She said she plans to run for election again next year to retain the chief justice post.
“I promise the governor and the people of North Carolina that I am working hard to do well at this job, but also working hard to keep it,” she said.
(This story has been updated.)