Politics & Government

NC Republicans want budget cuts for new African-American chief justice. Democrats cry foul.

Cheri Beasley will become the first black woman to be Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court

Cheri Beasley talks about the being the first African-American woman to be Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court during a press conference with NC Gov. Roy Cooper Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.
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Cheri Beasley talks about the being the first African-American woman to be Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court during a press conference with NC Gov. Roy Cooper Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Read about the latest developments in a follow-up to this story:

Senators restore chief justice’s budget, saying cuts ‘had nothing to do with party’

Cheri Beasley, who earlier this year became the first African-American female chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, will have her staff cut in half under a plan supported by Republicans in the N.C. Senate.

The state had a multi-million-dollar budget surplus this year, but Senate Republicans decided to eliminate funding for three of the six staffers who work for the state’s top judge.

Senate Democrats said it’s a politically motivated attack against Beasley, a Democrat who was appointed to the top job by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper after the previous chief justice, Republican Mark Martin, resigned to take a job leading a Virginia law school.

Two African-American Democratic senators, Floyd McKissick of Durham and Paul Lowe of Winston-Salem, led the criticism of their Republican colleagues during a debate Thursday.

“I think it’s a dastardly thing,” Lowe said. “We’ve got our first African-American female chief justice. And we haven’t taken resources away from others that served this position and served this state. To take them away now, it just seems morally wrong.”

Lowe briefly continued his criticisms but then cut himself off, saying “the last thing I want to do is cuss in this chamber.”

McKissick said that “when we make decisions like this, it should be blind.”

The budget isn’t official yet, since the House and Senate have different suggestions that they will need to reconcile. The cuts to Beasley’s staff are just one example of differences in the two chambers, since the House did not recommend similar cuts. But if the proposed cuts to Beasley’s staff are approved in the end, McKissick said that she would be the only appellate judge in the state with just one law clerk.

“I have to ask what the justification for this is,” McKissick said.

Republican Sen. Warren Daniel of Burke County, who helped write the budget, said they thought the money could be better spent elsewhere — specifically, to hire six new federal prosecutors around the state and to support the state’s Human Trafficking Commission.

“We thought these funds could be better spent in other places, and we moved them to other places,” Daniel said.

However, the Senate budget lists nearly $743 million in unappropriated funding this year. All of the money in question regarding the Supreme Court staff, human trafficking and new prosecutors would only be a small percentage of that money — about $900,000 next year and $1.2 million the year after that, according to the Senate budget.

Lowe proposed a budget amendment that wouldn’t fund everything, however. His proposal would have reduced the Human Trafficking Commission money by about $6,000 — and would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars more by only hiring three new prosecutors instead of six — and use the savings to restore funding to Beasley’s staff. But that failed to pass the Republican-led Senate.

More judicial cuts

Lowe’s failed attempt to amend the budget also would have prevented different cuts to the state court system that Senate Republicans want to make — to the the Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates accusations made against judges.

The commission has four professional staff members, and the Senate budget would eliminate funding for two jobs, including the executive director.

The proposed cuts come three weeks after the commission’s executive director, Carolyn Dubay, visited the General Assembly to oppose a different Senate bill that would limit the commission’s power, as the NC Insider previously reported.

Despite her opposition to that bill, SB 560, it passed the Senate 43-0 earlier this month. It’s now in the N.C. House, yet to be voted on.

House budget writers also did not suggest cutting any positions at the commission, so it remains unclear whether the final budget agreement will fund the jobs or not. A spokesperson for the state’s Judicial Branch did not respond to a question about what the potential cuts could mean for the commission and its investigations.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.