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Cheri Beasley to become first black woman to lead NC Supreme Court

February 13, 2019

Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday named state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley the next chief justice of the court, making her the first black woman to lead North Carolina’s highest court.

Beasley will assume her new post on March 1, following the resignation of Chief Justice Mark Martin, who is leaving to become dean of the Regent University School of Law in Virginia.

“I know Justice Beasley to be fair and deeply committed to viewing all North Carolinians equally through the eyes of the law,” Cooper said in announcing his selection.

In elevating Beasley to the top post, Cooper broke with the tradition of naming the senior member of the court as chief justice when the position becomes vacant. Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, and Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat, both have been on the Supreme Court longer than Beasley.

“There is no doubt that there are, I think, six members – other members – of the North Carolina Supreme Court who have the ability to serve as chief justice,” the governor said, adding that he also considered people outside the court for chief justice. “Justice Beasley is the right person at the right time.”

Newby sharply criticized Cooper’s decision and said he looks forward to running against Beasley for chief justice in the 2020 election.

“Sadly, today, Governor Cooper decided to place raw, partisan politics over a nonpartisan judiciary by rejecting the time-tested tradition of naming the senior associate justice as chief justice,” Newby said in a statement. “The governor’s decision further erodes public trust and confidence in a fair judiciary, free from partisan manipulation. While many talk of removing partisan politics from the courts, the governor’s actions today in using party label to make his selection is a reminder that actions speak louder than words.”

Other North Carolina Republicans also called Beasley’s appointment a partisan move.

“One can only believe the reason Cooper decided to ignore the longstanding, nonpartisan tradition of the court was purely politics. Cooper’s constant calls to keep our courts free from political interference rings hollow with this decision,” North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said in a statement.

“I wish Justice Beasley well in her new role. However, I am disappointed that Governor Cooper has ignored the decades-old precedent of appointing the most senior member of the court as chief justice. A reasonable conclusion is that he decided to pass over Justice Newby because of his party affiliation,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement.

Beasley said she hopes she can inspire young girls through her new position, noting that her selection comes amid Black History Month and as the Supreme Court celebrates its bicentennial.

“I hope it’s a show of symbolism for where we are in North Carolina,” she said. “This is certainly not the North Carolina of 200 years ago. 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 the confidence in the work that we do.”

Her shift to chief justice opens an associate justice position on the Supreme Court, and Cooper said he will likely name someone to that position in the next week or so. Like Beasley, that person would be on the ballot for an eight-year term in 2020.

Cooper said he feels no obligation to appoint a Republican as justice to maintain the current 5-2 balance on the court.

“I’m going to pick the best person that I can pick for the job,” he said. “The people will be the ultimate decider of this because whoever is chosen will stand for election in 2020.”

Beasley, who turns 53 on Thursday, was a District Court judge in Cumberland County for almost a decade before being elected to the state Court of Appeals in 2008. Four years later, she was appointed to the Supreme Court, and she was elected to an eight-year term on the court in 2014.

Susie Sharp, Rhoda Billings and Sarah Parker are the only other women to serve as chief justice in North Carolina. Henry Frye was the state’s only other black chief justice.

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