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A Conversation with The Chief Justice

A Conversation with The Chief Justice

Many folks already know Chief Justice Cheri Beasley,  but for those that may not, who is Cheri Beasley?

I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend. I am a woman of immense faith and a public servant. I’m constantly in motion, always looking for ways to improve myself and my community, and I’m never satisfied with the status quo.

What does it really mean to serve the community as the Chief Justice?

The Chief Justice really has two roles: she leads the Supreme Court and she serves as head of the Judicial Branch. In my role as leader of the Supreme Court, my responsibilities are very similar to each of the other justices. I hear the same cases, and I have the same single vote on those cases. My additional duties are mostly administrative and ceremonial. My other role, however, is unique. Just as the Governor is the head of the Executive Branch, I am head of the Judicial Branch. This means that I direct the policy of the Branch, which consists of approximately 6500 employees over 100 court facilities statewide. I am tasked with making sure that the courts in North Carolina are accessible to the people and are functioning in a way that instills confidence in the judicial system. It is an awesome responsibility and an immense privilege to impact the everyday lives of North Carolinians in this way.

When did you know you wanted to serve your community and the state in your current capacity? (What played into that decision?)

I always knew I wanted to work as an advocate, but I didn’t always know in what capacity. My time working for the Tennessee Human Relations Commission helped me envision my future in the law, showing me the profound impact lawyers can make on peoples’ lives. Even after I became a lawyer, I didn’t plan on becoming a judge and I certainly never thought I would be where I am now. While practicing as a public defender in Cumberland County a vacancy occurred on the district court bench. I didn’t immediately consider myself for the position, but friends and colleagues encouraged me to pursue it. I’m glad I listened to them, and to the people who later encouraged me to seek a position on the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court, and eventually the appointment as Chief Justice. Today, I am able to use my position as Chief Justice to successfully advocate for equal access to justice for all North Carolinians.

WOW, the first African-American woman Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court? What did that moment of victory feel like and can you speak to any barriers that you had to overcome?

It was amazing and a bit surreal. The historic nature of my appointment to the role of Chief Justice was certainly not lost on me. I felt, and continue to feel, an incredible sense of pride, and I also feel the heavy responsibility of being “first.” I know that there are young people watching me, and they’ll look to my story to inform their ideas about what they can accomplish themselves. I want them to be able to see unlimited possibilities.

Pausing to acknowledge the state of affairs our nation and our state are currently in. Take a moment and tell us the impact you believe COVID-19 has had and will continue to have on our community and state?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on all of us in North Carolina.  Public safety is the first priority in this unusual time, as we have had close to 23,000 confirmed cases and over 700 deaths attributed to the virus.  From an economic perspective, we have seen overwhelming rates of unemployment, with over 350,000 people in our state having applied for unemployment since mid-March.  We’ve never had to address an issue at this scale with the current institutions that are in place, which is why the future impacts of Coronavirus cannot quite be known. As we begin to open up in phases, it is extremely important for all of us to exercise caution, and realize that there are real concerns for a second wave of infection.  Continuing to practice social distancing and proper hygiene can help us prevent another outbreak at the scale that we have just experienced.

What has the impact been on our judicial system? (What type of court is still happening right now?)

In response to the public health threat posed by COVID-19, I issued orders postponing all non-essential court functions — including superior and district court proceedings — until June 1st. There are a number of exceptions, however, including if the proceeding can be conducted remotely, is necessary to preserve the right of due process of law, or if it is for the purpose of obtaining emergency relief. I also announced emergency directives notifying all clerks of superior court to post notices outside the entrance of every court facility directing any person who may have been exposed to COVID-19 not to enter and encouraging people who do not have business in a courthouse to not enter. I made these decisions in order to drastically reduce the foot traffic in courthouses across the state and limit the potential spread of COVID-19. I have also extended filing deadlines until June 1st. The judicial branch has had to juggle the complexities of social distancing along with the right to due process of law. To address these concerns, I announced the formation of the COVID-19 Task Force within the judicial branch to make recommendations about policy changes, emergency directives, and best practices going forward.

In times like this leadership is so important. What are some of the unique ways you are helping and ensure our judicial system is prepared during this crisis?

I am in constant communication with stakeholders statewide and with the leaders of the legislative and executive branches. I also meet frequently with the leadership team at the Administrative Office of the Courts, a truly fantastic group of dedicated professionals who are really pulling together to quickly implement new policies and procedures to ensure that our courts across the state can continue to provide essential services to the public.

You issued an order to postpone court proceedings until June 1. Can you share some of the details of this order and what it means to those that had/have upcoming court appearances.

This order directs all superior and district court proceedings to be scheduled or rescheduled for a date no sooner than June 1st. However, there are exceptions to this directive. If the proceeding will be conducted remotely, if it’s necessary to preserve the right to due process of law — such as a probation hearing or a bond hearing — if it’s necessary for the purpose of obtaining emergency relief — for example a domestic violence protective order or juvenile custody order — or if the proceeding can be conducted under conditions that protect the health and safety of all participants. The directive also does not apply to any proceedings where a jury has already been empaneled.

Where do you believe the gaps are, and what will it take for us to address them? (This question is meant to address any emerging issues, policy recommendations or best practices)

The Judicial Branch depends on the General Assembly for funding, and we will need increased funding in the wake of COVID-19 for personnel and technology.

In terms of personnel, we will need to hire temporary workers and to pay overtime to current staff to overcome the backlog that has been created by the postponed court proceedings over the last few months. We will need to provide personal protective equipment like masks and gloves to our court staff and to members of the public who can’t provide their own.

With regard to technology, the Judicial Branch would be in a much better position to address the current crisis—and really, to provide services in normal times—if we were working with 21st century technology statewide. The recordkeeping systems used in courthouses across North Carolina are woefully outdated. This has slowed down our efforts to move proceedings online in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that, well before the pandemic, we entered into a contract to implement our eCourts initiative, which would remedy this problem. But we will need funding from the legislature to pay for it.

We keep hearing folks talk about (post) COVID, what does post-COVID look like in your mind? Honestly, is there a (post) COVID or is it life with COVID moving forward?

During this pandemic I have been continually inspired by the perseverance and sacrifices made by our first responders and healthcare professionals. I believe that with new medical advancements and effective government policies we will find ways to overcome this virus and return to a place of normality and growth. I understand that this return to “normal” will take time and there will be aspects of our government and our lives that will be forever changed by this pandemic. But these changes will help to permanently improve North Carolina’s justice system and make it safer for everyone to achieve proper justice.

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How will we hold court differently after this pandemic is behind us? What new ways will the courts implement the use of technology?

The use of technology has been great in allowing court proceedings to be conducted remotely. Courts now have the ability to use video conferencing for proceedings. This has allowed us to continue our services while also protecting the safety and wellbeing of our community. In the future, video conference hearings could mean reduce time away from work for litigants, time out of the office for attorneys, and greater access to the public.

There are students who are graduating law school right now, some who have had to spend their first real year with a firm or within the courts dealing with this crisis. What’s your message to them?

I think the message we should be sending these individuals is to persevere through this challenging time and know that eventually we will reach a time where this pandemic is not the center of everyone’s attention.  Remember why you decided to pursue this line of work and know that the positive impact you want to have on your community is still possible, and needed now more than ever.

What’s the message to our minority community right now? From those struggling to make ends meet, deemed essential and having to leave their families, to the small business owner and parent(s) that have to educate from home. Can you offer any words of encouragement?

I know that there are a lot of people struggling right now with job loss, financial insecurity, and the emotional toll of this pandemic and quarantine.  The sacrifice of grocery store employees, healthcare workers, and all other essential workers is not going unnoticed.  This is a difficult time in history for every person in our community, and I urge patience and grace to those around you, as well as a new appreciation for the wonderful educators and childcare workers who do so much for us.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley

Another pause and pivot moment. What words can you offer the minority community as we continue to read stories and hear about incidents of injustice in our country?

Feelings of injustice in our courts must be validated by leaders of our courts. We must acknowledge that our nation’s history is stained with unjust practices. We must acknowledge and commit to doing better, being better. We must ensure that when people of color come to court, their cases are heard fairly, that courts and court officials do not view them as less human, that we are all culturally aware of our differences, that living in poverty not be deemed synonymous with criminality, that each person who comes before our courts be treated with dignity, even if charged with a crime. Members of our court system must be honest about our own biases and mindful that our perspectives are limited by our experiences. We must push ourselves to understand all people better. To do that we must admit that we fall short. In pushing ourselves, we must commit to continual race sensitive training and conversations, no matter how uncomfortable, about the impact of race on our service.

What’s the words to those young minority girls and boys that aspire to be great and next to change the world?

I always tell young people that they shouldn’t count themselves out of opportunities. People tend to be their own worst critics and to assume that there are other people who are more capable, or smarter, or better connected. If instead, we take some time to honestly assess ourselves and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt that we give everyone else, we might see that we are the right person for the opportunity.

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