If you told Cheri Beasley when she was a little girl that she would grow up to become North Carolina’s first Black female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, she might have looked at you a little funny.
“I can assure you that I could not have predicted my journey as a young girl,” she said Wednesday in an interview with NC Policy Watch. “I always felt really good, and I always felt led to service in some way, even as a little girl. As a Girl Scout, I was tasked with cleaning parks and that kind of a thing and going to senior citizen centers, and then it just sort of became engrained.”
Gov. Roy Cooper announced Beasley’s new role as Chief Justice on Tuesday. She’s been on cloud nine ever since with an overwhelming sense of love and support from those around her.
Beasley is originally from Tennessee, but she says she got to North Carolina as fast as she could. She was a graduate of Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University, where she majored in economics and political science and minored in accounting and finance.
After school, she worked at the Tennessee Human Relations Commission and investigated claims of discrimination involving age, gender and ability in places of public accommodation, housing and employment.
“It was really there that I decided to go to law school,” Beasley said. “It was a great opportunity to see lawyers in action and to see them take an advocacy role.”
She had hoped to attend law school in North Carolina to be with her soon-to-be husband, Curtis, but “as fate would have it,” she received a full scholarship from the University of Tennessee. The rest is quite literally history.
Beasley has been appointed to the judiciary by three different Governors – the District Court bench in Cumberland County by Gov. Jim Hunt, the Supreme Court by Gov. Bev Perdue and now the Chief Justice post by Cooper. She also served on the state Court of Appeals, where she was the first Black woman to be elected to statewide office without having first been appointed by a Governor.
“I’ve had a life full of highlights,” she said of her career. “I feel incredibly privileged to have served for 20 years in the judiciary. I honestly cannot think about a point in time when I thought that my service wasn’t worthwhile or that it wasn’t gratifying to be in the trial courts and to work with young people, or see a family has a difficulty in their lives and in some way be a part of helping them to come up with a solution.”
Beasley wore a navy blue skirt suit Wednesday and her ears were dotted with pearl earrings. She was matter-of-fact about her love for her work and her dedication to serving all of North Carolina.
“The import of the work directly impacts the jurisprudence of the state, and so even when people don’t have a sense of how the work of this court is affecting their everyday lives, it really does,” she said.
There is great honor, she added later, in being a part of people’s lives in such an impactful way.
“There’s no way that all of us shouldn’t feel a sense of gratitude and obligation to work hard to make sure we’re doing the very best for the people who come before us,” she said. “People in these cases, many of which are very complicated, share their journeys with us. … We have to really appreciate the fact that we’re in a very special place to make tough decisions which affect people and our communities and businesses.”
It’s not expected that much will change under her leadership. The other justices, she said, are always committed to working hard and to properly resolving cases in a timely fashion.
The Chief Justice, though, is responsible for much more than just the work of the high court. They are the leader of the entire judicial system with broad responsibilities, including numerous administrative and appointment duties, designating the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, creating Superior Court sessions and assigning those judges and choosing three-judge panels that hear constitutional challenges.
Beasley is up for the challenge, and her colleagues are excited and appreciate going forward in their collective journeys.
The few people who have expressed disappointment in Beasley’s appointment haven’t dampened her experience, she said.
The Republican Party criticized Cooper for not choosing Senior Associate Justice Paul Newby as Chief Justice. They charged the Governor with putting politics first. Similarly, Newby released a statement after her appointment that he was upset and that Cooper placed “raw partisan politics over a non-partisan judiciary.”
“I am going to let this moment shine,” Beasley said when asked about her critics, adding that it’s a huge honor for Cooper to place his trust and confidence in her. “What other people think is hugely important because people are important, but the reality is, I have to be guided by something higher and only really expend my energy in doing what I believe is best.”
She does not believe partisan politics has any place in the work justices perform on the Supreme Court.
“I am very well aware that there will be an election in 2020, which I am very much looking forward to, but I wholeheartedly believe that Gov. Cooper … made the decision that he believes in the best interest of the people of North Carolina for only the purest of reasons without any consequence to any political options,” she said.
Beasley’s appointment to serve as Chief Justice leaves her current position vacant, and Cooper will also appoint someone to fill it. His decision, which he expects to announce in the next week or so, could change the court to a 6-1 Democratic majority.
He’s been asked if he feels any obligation to appoint a Republican to keep a balance on the bench, but said he will appoint the best person for the job, whomever that may be.
Newby and three others, in addition to Beasley, have announced plans to run for the high court. Beasley said she and her family are geared up for what’s to come.
She described her husband, Curtis, and two sons – twins who are freshmen in college – as “really, really, really” excited.
“To hear [my sons] say that they are proud of me means an awful lot, because they have been such an important part of this journey,” Beasley said with a wide, warm smile. “And of course my husband, who never – now over 25 years of marriage – could have fathomed this would have been our journey together.”
Beasley said her appointment was monumental in its reflection of where North Carolina is as a state and “how her people look at her promise.”
Being the first Black woman to serve in that capacity also means it’s important for her to help people understand the significance of all organizations to be more diverse.
“And for us as leaders of the judiciary who are concerned that the public doesn’t have confidence in our branch, that it recognizes that the branch is inclusive and it seeks to serve diverse populations all over the state,” she added.
Beasley has also said it’s important for her in the new role to be a model for all young people, regardless of race or gender or creed. She is inspired every Friday, she said, when she goes to an elementary school to spend time with students who read to her.
“Just to see the sparkle in their eyes, to see how inquisitive they are about the world around them and how just a little bit of conversation about what the possibilities might be in their little lives is just so encouraging for I think me, but all of us, in terms of where we are as a society,” she said. “We have really wonderful, young, bright, fascinating young people. Just to be a small little part of their lives, it just really makes my day.”
She has been invested in working with kids and mentoring and training young lawyers, which she hopes to continue as Chief Justice. She wants people to see how big their possibilities in life can be.
“That’s why I think it’s so important and incumbent on the rest of us to help young people to see that the possibilities really are endless, and that so much in our future, and really in our present, depends on their willingness to see that they really are very capable and will offer the hope for North Carolina,” she added.