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Recount Almost Done In NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Race; Newby Maintains Lead

Current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and challenger Newby, the senior associate justice, remained in an extremely close election.
Current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and challenger Newby, the senior associate justice, remained in an extremely close election.
Current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and challenger Newby, the senior associate justice, remained in an extremely close election.
Credit Courtesy North Carolina Judicial Branch
The race between Cheri Beasley and Paul Martin Newby for North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice remains extremely close.

Recounts in the race for Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court are almost done. Republican Paul Newby maintains a slight lead over Democratic incumbent Cheri Beasley. As WUNC's Rusty Jacobs reports, the final outcome could have major implications for how state courts operate during the pandemic.

Like it or not, Cheri Beasley's tenure as Chief Justice will be defined in large part by her response to COVID-19.

"I have indeed entered emergency directives to try to keep our court employees and our court leaders and judges and district attorneys safe," said Beasley, the state Supreme Court's first African-American female Chief Justice at a candidate forum that aired in August on UNC-TV.

Dating back to mid-March, as the coronavirus pandemic hit North Carolina, Beasley issued a series of orders that curtailed court operations, including suspending jury trials.

County courts may now resume jury trials once their plans have been approved by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

At that August forum, Associate Justice Paul Newby said that if he's elected to replace Beasley as chief, he would cede more control to local authorities.

"Every clerk's office," he said, "the way that the judges, superior court, district court judges, react and they should be given the responsibility to figure out what's best for them."

Rick Glazier, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, a progressive advocacy organization, said such a shift in policy concerns him.

"Particularly as we're seeing, nationwide, incredible, almost exponential, surge of cases and the procedures that the chief justice has put in place not only need to be maintained, I think, but are going to have to be enhanced for awhile," said Glazier, who is also a former Democratic state representative and an appointee of Beasley's, serving on two state commissions.

Newby ended election night ahead of Beasley by a little more than 3,000 votes. But in the ensuing days, as late-arriving – but properly post-marked – absentee ballots were tallied, the gap narrowed and then the candidates took turns in the lead.

Beasley exercised her right to seek a recount and has also filed petitions in some counties challenging the rejection of some absentee and provisional ballots. However, as more and more counties complete the recount, it looks likely Newby will maintain his lead of 400 or so voters out of more than 5 million cast.

Chief justices wear many hats. They pick the head of the Administrative Office of the Courts, appoint the three-judge panels that preside over redistricting cases, and they advocate for court funding when lawmakers negotiate budget plans, as noted by Republican and former Associate Justice Bob Orr. 

"When you consider that the court is reviewing decisions by the General Assembly, it's a really delicate line that the chief justice has to walk," Orr said.

Orr said he does not think partisanship would unduly influence the selection of judges for redistricting cases, an issue of importance as the GOP-controlled state Legislature prepares to draw new maps following the 2020 census.

"It shouldn't be viewed in a partisan lens," Orr said. "And whoever the chief justice is will try and put three good trial judges to, you know, make the best decision they can."

Under state law, to assemble the judicial panels, chief justices must consult the state's conference of superior court judges and select judges from different parts of the state.

Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.