Chief Justice Cheri Beasley responds to a student's question at Pitt Community College

From the Daily Reflector by Ginger Livingston

The first African-American woman to lead North Carolina’s Supreme Court told high school students not to fret if they don’t know what career they want to explore.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said it’s even difficult for college graduates to know their career path because interests them at 23 may be completely different when they are 50.

Beasley spoke with students at J.H. Rose and South Central High Schools and students in Pitt Community College’s paralegal program on Monday.

Beasley’s appearance was in preparation with the N.C. Supreme Court’s visit to Pitt County on May 14 where it will hear oral arguments on a case. The court also will hear arguments on cases in Halifax and Craven counties.

Beasley explained that the court started holding sessions across the state in 2018 and will continue through 2020 as part of its bicentennial celebration. Prior to the General Assembly adopting special rules for its bicentennial celebration, the court only could meet in Raleigh, Morganton and Edenton.

“When I was in high school, your age, I didn’t know what i wanted to study,” Beasley said. “It’s important to work very hard, be diligent and study.”

In high school she participated in debate club and extemporaneous speaking competitions.

“I was always nervous, but now I think that gives you the fire to be great,” she said.

She also cautioned students to guard against thoughts that others will be better so they shouldn’t take on new experiences or work.

Women often fall into this trap of self-sabotage, Beasley said.

“There are so many fascinating things you are going to experience as long as you don’t count yourself out,” she said. Recognize your qualifications and interests so when an opportunity arises, be ready to move.

“If you don’t offer yourself the opportunity, you cut yourself short,” she said.

Beasley majored in economics and political science and minored in accounting and financial at Douglass College at Rutgers University. She didn’t initially think about becoming an attorney until she was an intern at the Tennessee Human Relations Commission, a state agency that oversees anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation.

“What I knew for sure (was) that I wanted to be an advocate in whatever I decided to study,” she said. Along with law school, she applied to graduate programs in public health, social work and a master’s in business administration program before choosing law school.

“I honestly can’t tell you that I had a burning desire to be a lawyer until my internship at the Tennessee Human Relations Commission,” she said. “I thought, this is pretty cool. I saw the kinds of cases the agency was handling.”

Beasley worked in corporate law and then as a prosecutor before joining the public defender’s office. In 1999 she became a district court judge in Cumberland County, where she served 10 years before being elected to the state Court of Appeals. That election made her the first African-American woman elected in any statewide race without first being appointed to the office, according to her biography on the N.C. Supreme Court website.

She was appointed as an associate justice on the Supreme Court in 2012 and chief justice in March.

As chief justice, Beasley administers the Supreme Court’s activities along with hearing cases. The chief justice also is responsible for overseeing the state court system, which employs about 6,500 people and operates on a $500 million budget.

Beasley said while she came around to a legal career, Associate Justice Mark Davis told her he always dreamed of being on the Supreme Court. Davis, the court’s newest member, will meet with D.H.Conley students today from 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Beasley and others members of the judiciary are seeking about $20 million so the state’s court system can modernize and an e-court system can be implemented to expand the number of judicial actions the public can handle online.

Beasley urged both the high school and paralegal students to establish relationships with people who have experience in area that interests them. She said the best way to establish those relationships is to pick up the phone and call.

Beasley outlined how the state’s justice system works. North Carolina has trial courts and appellate courts, she said. The trial court hears and rules on criminal and civil cases.

If a party to a case believes the ruling was based on a faulty application of the law, they can ask the N.C. Court of Appeals to review it. There are 15 members of the appellate court and cases are reviewed by three-judge panels, Beasley said. If necessary, the case may be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which has the option of accepting or declining the case. If accepted, it’s heard by all seven members.

“We are only concerned if the trail court made a legal error,” Beasley said. Unlike what the students may hear, she said, the State Supreme Court does not rewrite laws, she said.

The bulk of Beasley’s time at the high schools and Pitt Community College was spent answering student questions.

Beasley was asked if she ever regretted an opinion.

“I can tell you there are some decisions I didn’t like but it’s the court’s responsibility to follow the law,” she said. The court gives itself plenty of time to discuss and review the court’s record and attorney arguments before issuing an opinion, she said.

Beasley said while there are times people may perceive the state court as deeply divided, in 90 percent of its cases the court’s ruling in unanimous.

North Carolina’s state Supreme Court is the most diverse in the nation at this time. Out of its seven members, three are women, three are African-Americans and one is Jewish.

However, the court is not politically diverse. Currently, there are six Democrats and one Republican on the bench.

Beasley is one of four African-American women to serve as chief justices across the nation. Out of the group, two are currently retired, she said.

Court Categories: Supreme Court