Moments after the N.C. State Supreme Court held its formal ceremonial investiture for all newly elected members, Republicans signaled that the extended closures of North Carolina’s judicial branch ordered by former Democrat Chief Justice Cherie Beasley due to COVID-19 can’t continue under the state constitution.

Quoting directly from Article 1 Section 18, constitution’s open court provision, Justice Paul Newby stated, “The courts shall be open, and that justice shall be administered without favor, denial or delay.”

Newby continued: “That is the constitutional requirement that the courts shall be open. Open courts available for all the citizens is not a luxury it is a mandate. Nonetheless, how do we operate in the midst of our global and local pandemic with regard to COVID? That is the great stress of our time as we seek to protect the public health and our court personnel and fulfill our constitutional mandate.”

Newby said he has communicated with the governor that because of the constitutional mandate for open courts, he believes court personnel must be given priority to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr., and Associate Justice Tamara Barringer were also invested in a virtual ceremony conducted remotely due to COVID-19 concerns.

As the champagne flutes clinked at midnight and fireworks began booming across the land Jan. 1, Justice Newby took the oath of office and became North Carolina’s 30th chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.

Superior Court Judge Andrew Heath administered the oath of office to North Carolina’s new chief justice, whose wife Macon held his Bible.

“It is truly a sacred honor and privilege to serve as the 30th chief justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina,” said Newby.

Newby’s election to the role of chief justice of the state high court completed a Republican sweep of eight statewide judicial seats, including three state Supreme Court seats and five seats on the court of appeals.

New court administration

As chief justice, Newby will control administrative functions of the judicial branch that includes 6,400 employees and an annual budget of $550 million dollars. Newby is expected to quickly name a new director of the Administrative Office of the Courts that will manage services provided to the judicial branch’s more than 6,400 employees and 213 judicial facilities in every county of the state. The new director will begin working with the General Assembly on budget proposals that will seek to resume and accelerate court functions while maintaining safety during the pandemic.

Newby has already indicated he intends to give local courthouses more say on how to resume normal operations and make up for lost time.

Newby, the Supreme Court’s sole conservative voice since 2018, will be joined by new Republican justices Phil Berger Jr. and Tamara Barringer.

On Jan. 1,  Phil Berger Jr. was sworn in as the 100th justice on the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

He took the oath from his father, state Senate Leader Phil Berger Sr.

Senator Berger, the most powerful legislator in North Carolina over the past decade, came from the humblest of beginnings. He grew up near Danville, Virginia, where he graduated high school.

Phil Berger Jr., was heavily recruited by the Republican Party to run for the N.C. Court of Appeals in 2016. Justice Berger spoke of his parent’s moments after his investiture:

“My parents, Phil and Pat Berger, they instilled small-town values and a strong work ethic in their children and taught us that the American Dream is available to anyone in this country, no matter your background, no matter your zip code, even to a loom operator at Dan River Mills and a press board operator in a factory, with a simple goal in life to go to law school.”

On a similar theme, Justice Barringer spoke of her humble beginnings:

“Only in the United States can a girl from a small town in rural North Carolina who’s first home did not have indoor plumbing, who spent the first five years of her life in a single wide trailer be bestowed such an honor, privilege and responsibility.”

Chief Justice Newby and his two new Republican colleagues along with the four Democrats that make up the liberal majority begin 2021 with huge legal and political implications on the line. Two of the Democrats’ four seats on the court will be up for election in 2022 during President Biden’s first mid-term, an election that historically should favor Republicans.

Republicans need to capture just one of the two seats to obtain a N.C. Supreme Court majority that may endure until at least 2026. The court majority elected in 2022 will likely render final state judgement on legislative and congressional districts enacted by the 2021-22 Republican General Assembly.

Dallas Woodhouse is an investigative reporter at the John Locke Foundation.