Virtual forum held for N.C. Supreme Court candidates

The six candidates for N.C. Supreme Court and host Donna Martinez participate in a virtual forum hosted by the Federalist Society.

RALEIGH — The Federalist Society’s Triangle and Cape Fear Lawyers Chapters hosted a virtual forum for the North Carolina Supreme Court candidates on Sept. 10. The forum was moderated by Donna Martinez, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the John Locke Foundation.

The Federalist Society is a non-partisan organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers, jurists, law students and professors.

There are three state Supreme Court seats that will be decided in the November 2020 election.

Seat One is the chief justice seat. Current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is running to keep the seat with Sr. Associate Justice Paul Newby as her challenger. Both Beasley and Newby’s seats expire this year. Currently, Beasley has almost twice the amount of cash on hand as Newby.

The chief justice candidates went last during the forum. Beasley touted that she was the first chief justice in the nation to implement COVID-related emergency directives and the use of virtual hearings. She did not get into the delays in jury trials, which are still paused until at least Oct. 1. Beasley said that district courts were “being allowed to create their own plans” for how to resume jury trials.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said Newby in response to Beasley’s blanket COVID orders. He added that district courts have had pandemic plans in place since 2011.

“The federal courts have continued with jury trials. Some of our neighboring states have continued with jury trials. Why is that?” asked Newby.

Beasley pivoted to the Supreme Court’s existing case backlog and said, “we just don’t have the funding” to clear it.

Martinez brought up Beasley’s comments that she made in June about civil unrest and protest after the death of George Floyd and Newby’s remarks at a past event about justice and trust in the judicial branch. She then asked them both if there were two kinds of justice in the N.C. court system.

Beasley boasted that she was the “first chief justice in the nation” to speak out. She seemingly sided with the protesters who believe there are two kinds of justice and said that she believes the “majority of North Carolinians have no confidence in our courts.”

“It’s important that the leader of the judicial system support the public trust and confidence in our system and not undermine it,” Newby said.

“We need to let go of some strongly held thoughts about people who don’t look like us,” Beasley said. “We need to all work on our biases and perceptions of people who don’t look like us.”

Running for Seat Two are two N.C. Court of Appeals Judges Lucy Inman (D) and Judge Phil Berger, Jr. (R). Justice Mark Davis (D) and former state Sen. Tamara Barringer are running for Seat Four.

Candidates were given time for an opening statement, and then candidates were portioned by their seat races for more specific questions and debate.

The first panel match up was for Seat Two featuring Judges Inman and Berger. Inman has been on the N.C. Court of Appeals since January 2015 and Berger since November 2016. They were both asked what voters should take away from their political party affiliations.

“I’m a conservative judge, first and foremost,” said Berger. “I believe in limited government and judicial restraint.” He went on to say that voters likely see Republican judges to be more “textualist” and that they won’t “legislate from the bench.”

Berger was previously the district attorney for Rockingham County. He was first elected in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010. During his opening remarks, Berger said if he were elected, he would be the only former district attorney to serve on the state Supreme Court.

Inman said that she’s a judge and that she is “independent and impartial.” She said that “following precedent” is a “fundamental principle” she believes in.

Inman is the daughter of author Lucy Daniels, the granddaughter of former White House Press Secretary Jonathan W. Daniels. Inman is also the great-granddaughter of Josephus Daniels, a prominent segregationist and publisher of The News & Observer, who printed racist articles and cartoons later dubbed the “white supremacy” campaign of 1898.

During discussion by Seat Four candidates about whether or not judges should be fixing societal injustices from the bench, Davis said that “fairness” was already a part of the statute or constitutional provision.

“As judges our role is very limited. Our job is to apply the law,” said Davis, who served as a judge on the state’s court of appeals from 2013 to 2019 when he was elevated to the Supreme Court.

“I am a textualist,” said Barringer, a former state senator who served District 17 in Wake County from 2013 through 2018. “I believe the law should be applied as written.”

Barringer said that after spending nearly seven years in the General Assembly representing the people and interests of the state, that legislation is “to be respected.” She said the law should be applied “equally and fairly to all people.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s appointments have created a hard-left tilt to the court, standing at six Democrats and one Republican. In 2019, Cooper altered the political make-up of the state’s top court upon the departure of Chief Justice Mark Martin, a Republican. Martin departed to become the dean of a law school in Virginia. Cooper selected Beasley, a Democrat, as Martin’s replacement. In doing so, the governor passed over two sitting justices with more experience than Beasley had, Newby and Associate Justice Robin Hudson.

After moving Beasley into the chief spot, Cooper then appointed Mark Davis, another Democrat, to fill her seat. This is the second time Davis has filled a seat once held by Beasley. The first time was in 2012 at the hand of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue after she elevated Beasley from the N.C. Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court.