N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby.

Newly sworn in Chief Justice Paul Newby is wasting little time in getting North Carolina’s court system back up and running. In an order that went into effect Thursday, Jan. 14, Newby handed authority to local court systems to decide about reopening.

“That is a constitutional requirement,” Newby, a Republican, said at his Jan. 6 virtual swearing in ceremony. “Certainly open courts available for all citizens is not a luxury, it’s a mandate.”

The order replaces an expired directive last issued Dec. 14 by former Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat. That order shuttered many parts of the court system due to rising COVID-19 cases. The new order gives local jurisdictions leeway in deciding when and how to reopen, based on their own judgments on health risks. It also asks Gov. Roy Cooper to prioritize court staff in the state’s vaccination schedule.

“Today’s order allows local courthouse leadership, who assess the threat of COVID-19 every day, to tailor preventative measures to meet their specific local challenges,” Newby said in a news release announcing the order. “But they are not alone in this fight. I have requested that the Governor prioritize our court personnel in the COVID-19 vaccination schedule so we can fulfill our constitutional ‘open courts’ mandate to provide equal justice to all in a timely manner.”

The order extends other COVID-related restrictions — such as a requirement that face masks be worn and allowing for virtual court hearings — while permitting others to expire, including a ban jury trials and discouragement of in-person meetings.

We have a constitutional guarantee that the courts shall be open and that ‘justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay,’” Andrew Heath, the new director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, told Carolina Journal. “Our state courts are essential and perform a variety of functions that secure the rights of all North Carolinians.

“The dangers posed by COVID-19 remain serious,” Heath added. “Local courthouse leadership assess the threat of COVID-19 every day, so this order empowers them to tailor preventative measures to meet their specific local challenges.”

Newby’s victory in the November election over Beasley was certified after a hand recount gave him a victory margin of 401 votes out of nearly 5.4 million cast. Before the 2020 election, Democrats maintained a 6-1 majority on the state’s highest court. But Republicans made a clean sweep of three races on the ballot, eroding the Democrats’ majority to a 4-3 advantage.

David Bass is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.