Newby is the lone Republican of the seven justices. As the “first among equals” chief justice, he’d be responsible for setting the tone of the court and also serve as the head of the state’s judicial branch of government, responsible for more than 6,000 employees.
“The judicial branch impacts your life in more ways than you can imagine,” said Newby. “Very, very important ways. The judicial branch and particularly the Supreme Court will ultimately say what the state Constitution says. We’re the final say on that. Our court is designed to protect fundamental rights and freedoms, and yet a court that has the power to protect also has the power to take away.”
Balancing those powers probably isn’t easy when you’re outnumbered 6-to-1, but Newby’s victory over incumbent Chief Justice Cheri Beasley would be a decisive one for N.C. conservatives, if he can pull it off; as the role of the chief justice also extends into advocacy for administrative and procedural refinement of the system itself, Newby or Beasley will have an enduring influence on contemporary debates over bail reform, juvenile justice and how to handle the opioid crisis.
There are a number of pressing issues in the North Carolina justice system and none more pressing, according to Newby, than the efficiency of the system as a whole.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he said. “We need to move cases through the court system in a more rapid pace. We’ve got to figure out how best to do that so justice can be served in a prompt manner. If you look at other issues, some of these are related to justice delayed, and they’ve got to do with folks that are being detained in our local jails that don’t need to be there.”
Starting next month, 16 and 17-year-olds who commit crimes will no longer automatically be charged as adults, the result of a successful “raise the age” campaign earlier this year.
That’s an important step but not a broad one, Newby said, citing opportunities to better utilize drug courts across the state.
“There seems to be a culture of hopelessness as people turn to drug abuse,” he said. “I think we need to admit that the drug situation is a significant problem. You get both a mental health situation as well as the situation with folks on the lower end being in jail. You get folks in jail that really ought not be there at all.”
Revisiting the state’s criminal code may also be an option, to ensure that the crimes listed therein actually require incarceration and can’t be dealt with outside the criminal justice system. To that end, bail reform is another avenue for improvement.
“It’s something we absolutely need to look at,” Newby said. “The purpose of bail is to make sure somebody shows up for their hearings. Well, are they a risk of flight or are they a threat to the community? Those are the two factors and only those two factors [that should be considered].”
As currently constituted, the justice system doesn’t fully buy into the idea that not everyone arrested for simple drug possession needs to post a bond.
“Don’t get me wrong. I believe that folks that commit serious crimes need to experience the punishment that goes with them. But it’s expensive for counties, who have to hold the person in jail and pay all the incidental expenses with regard to that,” he said. “And frankly, people in the county system don’t have access to the treatment options in the state system, which again, justice delayed is justice denied.”
Much of that denial also stems from the delays involved in accessing the justice system; as litigants become more sophisticated, they’re increasingly choosing to represent themselves, to file their own paperwork and to conduct their own research. Some of that comes from the relatively new availability of resources online, but some of it comes from everyday people being priced out of the system.
“The legal profession needs to be inspired to think of ways that our legal services can be more accessible,” said Newby. “My mom was a school teacher, my dad was an hourly worker. When I went to work, I was shocked. My parents couldn’t have paid any of the legal bills I would’ve sent out there to my clients.”
Finding better ways to serve existing needs is critical, he said.
“It’s an opportunity for us to remember the nobility of our profession — our calling to protect fundamental rights and freedoms to help people truly exercise and enjoy the rights of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Newby said. “Every lawyer who practices is involved in that. As I give oaths to new attorneys, I emphasized the high calling, and I think that part of being a chief justice is to inspire folks to do better.”
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley isn’t even Newby’s biggest obstacle to victory — both candidates have to focus on educating voters as to the existence of judicial races. Called “downcard” races because they usually appear at the bottom of the ballot, they don’t get nearly as much attention as more high-profile legislative races.
Additionally, judges can’t campaign like legislators, who opine on all manner of issues. That makes it difficult for judicial candidates to annunciate their legal viewpoints.
Since it’s a partisan election, voters can gain some insight into who, exactly, they are voting for even if they’re not familiar with the candidates, but that can sometimes be a double-edged sword; as with other 2020 races, results will no doubt be influenced by the popularity (or lack thereof) of the country’s top Republican, President Donald Trump.
Still, casting an informed vote in judicial races is of the utmost import, according to Newby.
“Electing the wrong judges could mean that the judges would not only tell you what a statute means, they could reinterpret it to say, ‘This is what we want it to mean, so we’re ruling this way,’” Newby said. “People can vote for judges that are more activist in philosophy, or they can vote for those who truly believe in judicial self restraint. Being informed about judicial philosophy is vital in casting an informed vote for judges, and truly, it is our responsibility to be sure that citizens who respect the separation of powers and who understand the limited role of the judicial branch are elected as judges.”