A First in North Carolina: Black Woman Named Chief Justice of State Supreme Court

Cheri Beasley has been a judge for the last 20 years and has been on the Supreme Court since 2012. She was a public defender in Fayetteville before becoming a judge.

By Will Doran

The next chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court will be Cheri Beasley, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday.

Beasley will make history as the first black woman to be the state's top judge.

"This is not the North Carolina of 200 years ago," she said in the press conference at the Governor's Mansion where Cooper announced her new role.

Beasley has been a judge for the last 20 years and has been on the Supreme Court since 2012. She was a public defender in Fayetteville before becoming a judge.

Judges in North Carolina are usually elected, not appointed. But when former Chief Justice Mark Martin announced in January that he would retire this month, to take a job leading a Virginia law school, state law gave Cooper the power to pick someone to take Martin's place.

Since Cooper picked a current Supreme Court judge to replace Martin, that means Beasley's  associate justice seat will also become vacant, and Cooper will need to appoint someone else to take it. Cooper said he will announce his pick for that seat later.

If he picks another Democrat to replace Beasley, the court will have a 6-1 Democratic majority. The court had been 5-2 in favor of Democrats before Martin, a Republican, retired. The court's last remaining Republican is associate justice Paul Newby, who is also the justice with the longest tenure on the court.

Newby, who had publicly asked to be named chief justice, said Cooper broke with tradition by not picking him since he had the most experience on the court, having served since 2004.

"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," Newby wrote on Twitter. "The governor's decision further erodes public trust and confidence in a fair judiciary, free from partisan manipulation."

But Cooper said there have been other times in state history that governors picked someone other than the most senior associate justice. And Beasley, he said, was the right woman for the job. Beasley said it wasn't lost on her that her historic appointment came during Black History Month.

She quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and said she hopes to serve as an inspiration to young girls, adding that she wants to "make sure that our justice system is sound, that we are indeed serving the people of North Carolina the way we should."

Newby has previously said he would run for the chief justice job in 2020, regardless of whether he was appointed now. He reiterated that Tuesday, potentially setting up a contest with Beasley next year.

Several lawyers and judges from around the state have previously expressed interest in moving up to the Supreme Court next year. There had originally only been one seat up for election, but due to the vacancies created by Martin's retirement and Beasley's elevation, there will now be three Supreme Court races in 2020.

On the Republican side, Phil Berger Jr. -- a Court of Appeals judge since 2017 and the son of N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger Sr. -- has said he plans to run for an associate justice seat. So has UNC law professor and former N.C. Senator Tamara Barringer.

On the Democratic side, Court of Appeals judge Lucy Inman plans to run for an associate justice seat.

(c)2019 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)