After failing to earn a statewide hand recount and unable to get Democratic boards of elections to accept ballots already deemed unlawful, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley conceded the North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice race on Saturday December 12, 2020. The Saturday morning concession, 39 days after the election, clears the way for Justice Paul Newby to become the 30th chief justice of the North Carolina state Supreme Court.
Newby’s election to the role of chief justice of the state high court completed a Republican sweep of eight statewide judicial seats, including three state supreme court seats and five seats on the court of appeals.
Beasley lost her reelection bid to Justice Paul Newby by 406 votes (as of November 19). Final statewide machine recount numbers showed Newby’s lead shrank by only five votes, with the final margin of victory for Newby being 401 votes out of nearly 5.4 million cast. A hand to eye recount also confirmed Newby’s victory.
“Congratulations to Paul Newby for being elected as the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Justice Newby ran a phenomenal campaign and will serve with honor and distinction as the Chief Justice on our highest court,” said NCGOP Chairman Michael Whatley.
Beasley was first appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2012 by Gov. Bev. Perdue after serving on the state Court of Appeals. Beasley was elected to a full term on the Supreme Court in 2014, when she narrowly defeated Republican Mike Robinson by 5,000 votes out of 2.4 million cast. Beasley became the first African American woman in the North Carolina Supreme Court’s 200 year history to serve as chief justice when Gov. Cooper appointed her to the position in 2019 following the retirement of Republican Mark Martin.
Newby’s victory was in part secured by the strong GOP performance in Robeson County, a Democratic stronghold that’s become more Republican in the Trump era. Robeson County netted Newby 465 key votes by recounts’ end.
Beasley’s election protests were meritless
Knowing the recount would not likely result in a victory, Beasley sought new votes to count in hopes of securing a win. She filed protests in 90 counties to get changes in their vote tallies in an attempt to overturn the result. Specifically, Beasley asked the Democratic-controlled local boards of elections to reconsider already rejected absentee and provisional ballots.
But the chief justice’s protests turned out to be highly problematic, controversial and downright embarrassing. WRAL found the complaints filled with errors, including urging election officials to count ballots that had in fact already been counted.
Even worse, the News and Observer found a shocking effort by the chief justice to steamroll the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Beasley attempted to only have the rejected ballots of registered Democrats reconsidered and not Republicans (pay wall):
“Across the more than 3,200 voter names Beasley’s campaign provided to election officials in almost every county in North Carolina, only a handful belonged to registered Republicans.”
The N&O further noted an “analysis that matched more than 2,800 names on the campaign’s list with public election data shows that about 70% identify as Democrats. Another 800 are unaffiliated. Only nine voters matched from Beasley’s list were members of the GOP – less than 1% of the total.”
Civitas spoke with former North Carolina State Board of Elections member John Lewis about his concerns regarding the Beasley protests and the need to keep partisanship out of the chief justice race. In fact, most Democratic-controlled local boards of elections found the Beasley protests meritless and rejected them outright.
Civitas noted that in appealing to the State Board of Elections, her campaign was asking state election officials to count ballots in direct violation of the law. Beasley’s nod to reality will allow both campaigns to withdraw all remaining protests and Newby to be certified the winner on December 18th, less than two weeks before his term begins.
New court administration
As Chief Justice, Newby will control the administrative functions of the judicial branch that includes 6,400 employees and an annual budget of $550 million dollars. Newby will make his biggest impact and most critical decision in court administration when he names the director for the administrative office of the courts. Soon after, he will begin working with the General Assembly on budget proposals that will seek to resume and accelerate court functions while maintaining safety during the pandemic.
Newby has already indicated he intends to give local courthouses more say on how to resume normal operations and make up for lost time.
New Supreme Court dynamic
Democratic majorities on the state Supreme Court have routinely sided with the Cooper administration in lawsuits against legislation enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, while also regularly siding with the governor over questions of executive power.
Newby, the Supreme Court’s sole conservative voice since 2018 will be joined by new Republican justices Phil Berger Jr. and Tamara Barringer. All three hold a similar judicial philosophy of judicial restraint and respect for the other elected branches of government. Newby and Republicans will immediately have a greater voice on North Carolina’s highest court, but Democrats will continue to have a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court.
Republican judicial candidates were likely boosted by a law and order theme after widespread vandalism and unrest was seen across North Carolina in 2020.
Chief Justice Beasley raised eyebrows by casting aspersions on the entire North Carolina judicial system in which she declared it racially unjust. Appeals Court Judge Lucy Inman joined in and described the court system as systematically racist in her race against Phil Berger, Jr.
Justice-elect Berger told the North State Journal why he believed voters chose a slate of conservative judges.
“The people of North Carolina said no activist judges, and yes to the rule of law,” said Berger. “I’m thankful that the voters of this state have put their trust in me to serve them.”
As Chief Justice, Newby will select the three judge panels that give initial review to redistricting cases as well as constitutional challenges to acts passed by the General Assembly. Newby will also appoint the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, chief administrative law judge and members of the NC Judicial Standards Commission.
Both sides have misjudged the politics of the courts
North Carolina conducted partisan judicial elections for most of its history until 2004. The state was controlled by Democrats for most of its history and partisan elections allowed the Democratic party to dominate the courts as well. Then in 2004, as Republicans became more successful in statewide elections, Democrats in the state legislature switched to nonpartisan elections.
In 2016, Republican majorities in the General Assembly passed legislation requiring all court of appeals candidates to list their party affiliation. In the fall elections, GOP candidates went 4-4. Republicans did not require ballot affiliation for the one state Supreme Court race and Republican incumbent Bob Edmunds lost to Democrat Mike Morgan, in part because Morgan was the sole Democrat listed at the top of his ballot that year.
In 2018, the GOP led General Assembly decided to eliminate some judicial primaries, resulting in Republican state Supreme Court incumbent Barbara Jackson having to face two candidates in the general election. Jackson lost to liberal Democrat Anita Earls and Chris Anglin another Republican who had recently changed his party affiliation and whose campaign was managed by a leading Democrat.
Yet in 2020, it was Gov. Roy Cooper and Democrats that made a serious political miscalculation.
In January of 2019, then Chief Justice Mark Martin announced that he would retire from the North Carolina Supreme Court in February 2019 to become the dean of law school at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Associate Justice Cheri Beasley as Martin’s successor to fill the role until the 2020 election. Cooper’s choice did not follow the tradition of the governor filling a vacant chief justice positionwith the most veteran member of the court, who would have been Republican Paul Newby. Cooper likely wanted to make history and gain favor with African American voters with the Beasley appointment.
At the time, Newby was already vacating his seat as associate justice to run for chief. Without the appointment, Beasley could have run for chief justice without vacating her seat as associate justice. Had she won, Cooper would have replaced her via appointment. With a loss she would still be on the court as an associate justice.
When Cooper appointed Beasley, a third seat on the Supreme Court came open. Gov. Cooper could have guaranteed Democrats no worse than a 5-2 majority. Instead they sit at a fragile 4- 3 Democratic majority.
Going forward, 2022 looms large
Chief Justice Newby and the four Democrats that make up the liberal majority begin 2021 with huge legal and political implications on the line. Two of the Democrats’ four seats on the court will be up for election in 2022 during President Joe Biden’s first mid-term, an election that should favor Republicans if history is any indication.
With Justice Robin Hudson facing mandatory retirement in early 2024, she is unlikely to file for re-election. Democratic Justice Sam Ervin, Jr’s term is also up for election in 2022.
Republicans need to capture just one of the two seats to obtain a Supreme Court majority that may endure until at least 2026. The court majority elected in 2022 will likely render final state judgement on legislative and congressional districts enacted by the Republican General Assembly in late 2021 or early 2022.