After a month of waiting and two recounts, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has officially conceded to Associate Justice Paul Newby in North Carolina’s Supreme Court Chief Justice race. With a margin of only 401 votes, it’s the closest race of the cycle in North Carolina and perhaps the closest statewide race in state history. However, after a hand-to-eye recount failed to make up any ground, Newby will now become the next Chief Justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court.
This result means Republicans will have swept all eight judicial races in the state. The Supreme Court’s majority will shift from 6-1 Democratic to 4-3 Democratic, with Newby occupying the crucial Chief Justice position. But who were the candidates in the race, and why did the results take so long to be decided? The story is more complicated than it appears.
In 2019, Republican Chief Justice Mark Martin stepped down from his post. In North Carolina, the Governor is tasked with filling judicial vacancies. Traditionally, the most-senior Justice is selected for the spot. At the time, this was Paul Newby, a Republican. However, Roy Cooper, a Democrat, opted instead to select Associate Justice Cheri Beasley, who was not even the most senior Democrat. This decision enraged Newby, who was set to become the only Republican on the court. He immediately announced his intention to run for Chief Justice.
Beasley, the first African-American woman to serve as Chief Justice, was only 52 at the time she was appointed. The mandatory retirement age in North Carolina for Supreme Court Justices is 72. This means that Beasley could theoretically have held the office for two decades. This, combined with her progressive legal record, no doubt inspired Cooper to select her over fellow Democrat Robin Hudson, who would have had to retire in 2024.
As Chief Justice, Beasley oversaw a decisive 6-1 Democratic majority. She set out to target racism in the court system. She also asserted that the “majority of North Carolinians have no confidence in our courts” and pledged to ensure there are not “two forms of justice”. Newby pledged to “support the public trust and confidence in our system and not undermine it” and to use an originalist judicial philosophy similar to that of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
With only two candidates in the race, the choices for office were very clear. Although Democrats were expected to make gains in the Tar Heel State, election night told a different story. Republicans won both the Presidential and Senate race as well as all six of their Council of State offices. They also swept the Court of Appeals races and won two of the three Supreme Court races by comfortable margins.
The Chief Justice race proved different, however. After election night, Paul Newby held a narrow lead of several thousand votes. However, Cheri Beasley was able to claw back after late-returned absentee ballots began to be counted. The two would alternate leads for several days, and the difference at times was as small as five votes. Newby could ultimately hold a lead after all the votes were counted, in part due to a strong performance in Robeson County. However, the margin of only 406 votes out of nearly 5.4 million cast was well within the threshold for a recount – and that is where the drama began.
A Tumultuous Recount
The machine recount showed little change from the original result, with Newby still leading by 401 votes. Republicans promptly called for Beasley to concede. Instead, the Beasley campaign called for a hand-to-eye recount. Under state law, 3% of voting sites in each county would be chosen at random. A full hand recount would be ordered if the margin changed by a certain amount.
Additionally, Beasley filed challenges in the county boards of elections. She asserted that thousands of votes were incorrectly rejected. However, the media analysis of these challenges found them to not only be incorrect, but also almost entirely of Democratic ballots. Only a small number belonged to Republican voters. Because the county boards of elections in North Carolina are all 3-2 Democratic, Republicans accused Beasley of attempting to “Cheri-mander” the vote to steal the election. They asserted that a selective attempt to add Democratic ballots violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Most of the boards of elections opted to reject these challenges. Moreover, following the failure of the hand-to-eye recount to find a meaningful difference in the vote total, Beasley opted to end her challenges and concede the election.
As Chief Justice, Newby will be in charge of a slew of powers and responsibilities. While the court will still have a small Democratic advantage, Newby will have the authority to name three-judge panels on redistricting lawsuits as well as to appoint the Director and Assistant Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). Newby will have a great deal of leverage to influence the court’s policy and actions. Should voters create a Republican majority in 2022, Newby will also be positioned to shift the court in a firmly textualist direction.
Beasley, meanwhile, will no doubt be considered for future roles. Rumors are circulating of a run for Senate by Associate Justice Anita Earls, which would result in her seat being vacated; Cooper could appoint Beasley to this seat. Beasley might also be considered for some sort of federal court position. Regardless, this likely isn’t the end of her judicial career.