Newby transforms N.C. courts to playground to settle petty political feud

Published January 11, 2024

By Capitol Broadcasting Company

When North Carolina legislature this year extended the mandatory retirement age for appellate judges from 72 to 76, it was about politics to keep Chief Justice Paul Newby in office at least through the end of his 8-year term instead of being forced to retire in 2027. Susie Sharp, the first woman to serve as the state’s chief justice, was forced to leave the job in 1979, three years before her term ended. The politics hasn’t ended there.

Lest anyone seek proof, they need look no further than the events of this week.

Politics, not justice, is what motivates Newby. It doesn’t take a cartographer to map the political connections. Let’s see the route.

Appeals Court Chief Judge Donna Stroud was the senior judge on that court and its chief judge when she was reelected in 2022. This week Newby stealthily demoted Stroud from her leadership post, replacing her with junior Appeals Court judge Chris Dillon – who also was until this week the chair of the state Judicial Standards Commission.

In a similarly stealthy move, Newby named Appeals Court Judge Jeffrey Carpenter to replace Dillon as the leader of the Judicial Standards Commission.

That’s not all. This week Newby presided at the swearing in of Beth Freshwater Smith as a newly legislatively-appointed (as recommended by state Senate leader Phil Berger) special state Superior Court Judge.

It was Freshwater Smith who in 2020 challenged Stroud in the Republican primary with support from Berger and endorsements from state Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr., the namesake son of powerful state Senate leader, and Judge Carpenter.

In May 2022, Justice Berger Jr., in an unusual action by a sitting judge or justice, directly and publicly worked to defeat Stroud. In a Facebook post, as reported by Business North Carolina, Berger Jr. revealed he opposed hiring Gene Soar as the Appeals Court’s clerk. Berger, disregarding matters of qualification wanted a Republican and not a candidate the court’s Democratic judges also backed for the job. He noted that one of the applicants was his former law clerk.

There were real questions about the appropriateness of sitting judges and justices being so directly involved in political campaigns, particularly when there was a likelihood that they might be called upon to adjudicate issues about those elections.

In March 2022 reported the N.C. Tribune, the state Judicial Standards Commission posted a note on its website leaving the quite distinct impression that candidate endorsements by sitting judges weren’t proper. “Endorsements should only be made when a judge is a bona fide candidate actively engaging in campaigning during his or her election cycle,” it stated. “Otherwise, the rule prohibiting endorsements … would be rendered meaningless except as to special superior court judges and other judges unable to run for re-election.”

A few days later the memo was revised with those sentences deleted. The update gave judges and justices broader latitude for endorsements and other forms of election campaign involvement. The executive director of the commission, Carolyn Dubay, resigned shortly after.

Traveling this trail to its origin – the 2020 elections – makes clear the events of this week are not about the administration of justice. Chief Justice Newby, Justice Berger Jr., Judge Dillion and Judge Carpenter – and who knows who else -- manipulated our state’s judicial system to settle a political feud.

Such blatant patronage, reflexive partisanship, manipulation and fealty went out 235 years ago with the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution.

North Carolinians must have a judicial system – as well as those who lead it – that settles disputes openly and according to the law.

The latest actions by the leaders of our state courts are clearly to the contrary.

This latest judicial escapade, as this evidence clearly shows, is to the contrary and will only foster distrust and cynicism.

Newby is transforming the courts from a forum for justice into a political playground.

Capitol Broadcastin