Chief Justice Paul Newby

NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby: ‘I’m Not a Legislator in a Black Robe’

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On January 6, Paul Newby was sworn in as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. The vote count and re-count process took 40 days ending with Newby winning by 401 votes with 5.4 million ballots.

Prior to his election, he was the senior associate justice, having been elected to the high court in 2004 and 2012. Newby is a native of Randolph County, North Carolina. He graduated from Duke and earned his Juris Doctor from UNC. Newby was in private practice for five years. He spent 19 years as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. In late January, Newby spoke with Executive Publisher Bob Friedman about the unprecedented challenges awaiting him.

AALM: The now year-old pandemic militated numerous procedural changes in the state’s court system. Do you see them continuing post-pandemic?

PN: My polar star is Article 1, Section 18. That is our open courts provision. It says justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay, but it also says the courts shall be open. My approach has been that I, in Raleigh, don’t know the COVID conditions at the various locations of our courthouses. The local stakeholders are in a much better position to make decisions regarding the safe operation of courts in their local communities.

I am encouraged by the innovations that have helped the efficiency of the justice system, mostly video conferencing technology in criminal and civil cases. I envision the use of video conferencing technology will continue after the pandemic.

It’s interesting that we’ve got the innovations with COVID coinciding with e-court initiatives and our pilot project starting in June. I have various taskforces working on what technological advances we should keep after the pandemic and which ones we need to discard. Other committees are addressing modifications to rules and statutes that will have to occur so that e-filing will become a reality.

One idea that seems to be effective is video conferencing criminal defense attorneys with their clients. Should every prison and jail have video conferencing capability? Would that save time for attorneys and resources on the transport of defendants from the jails and prisons to the courthouses plus all the risks and other factors that go with that? Would it help attorneys be able to have better access to their clients and clients to their attorneys? On the other hand, we’ve got to be aware of due process clause rights. We’ve got to be sure that whatever use of technology survives is constitutional in terms of ensuring that parties in civil and criminal lawsuits are given due process.

AALM: Several attorneys have told me that they like doing calendar calls remotely. Will that continue?

PN: (laughs) Amen. Absolutely. Talk about past inefficiencies and a way to make things more efficient. I think that is an idea that needs to be properly vetted with all the stakeholders. But I certainly can see the benefit of something that allows for proper scheduling. It benefits attorneys and clients.

Paul Newby swearing in
Chief Justice Paul Newby is sworn into office by Judge Andrew T. Heath January 6 at his home alongside his wife, Macon.

AALM: Governor Cooper released recommendations from the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice in December. They call for changes across the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. One of the recommendations was, “Require racial equity training for court system personnel, including judges, DAs, and public defenders.” Do the courts have a problem?

PN: We need to evaluate our system asking whether it structurally favors one group over another. We have a problem with perception. In my over 40 years of legal experience, I have yet to meet one of our stakeholders who would treat anyone differently based on skin color or gender. My assessment is I’ve never met a victim who wanted justice to be done differently based on the race or gender of the perpetrator.

Public trust and confidence are foundational aspects of our government. We need to properly assess our legal system and provide appropriate changes when necessary. My personal experience within our system is that we are not perfect, but we have some incredibly talented individuals whose sole goal is equal justice for everyone. Does that mean we are perfect? Absolutely not. As I tell people, there are no perfections within our judicial system because we are all human. While we are not perfect, we can always improve. I appreciate the desire of our stakeholders to consistently improve our delivery of justice.

AALM: In your successful 2004 and 2012 campaigns for a seat on the Supreme Court, and in your successful campaign for chief justice, you’ve identified yourself as a conservative. What does that mean?

PN: My judicial philosophy is that of a commonsense constitutional conservative. That means I honor separation of powers. I appreciate both the state and federal constitutions. There are different tasks our state constitution assigns to each branch of government, and it’s not my job as a justice to legislate. It’s my job to fairly and impartially apply the law to the facts of each case. If I don’t like the law, I don’t change it. If I don’t like a constitutional provision, I don’t change it. I’m not a legislator in a black robe. As a judge, I simply apply the law. Under separation of powers, the legislature makes the law, and the executive is tasked with executing the law.

I believe in judicial self-restraint. That’s another aspect of being a conservative. What that means is, you allow separation of powers to work. The courts are not the public square where policy should be decided. The legislative branch is equipped to do that.

AALM: Divisiveness is taking root throughout society. Our country is deeply divided along several fault lines, red-blue, us-them, good guy-bad guy. Is this impacting the justice system?

PN: I’m seeing more situations where there is tension between counsel. One thinks that their particular client is in the right and tends to see their side as “good.” Therefore, the party opposing the “good” party is “bad” by definition. We’re called to be counselors at law, able to objectively give clients proper advice. Over-identification with one’s client can lead to a breakdown of civility. My humble hope is that we, as lawyers, will show our culture that we can disagree about matters but still treat each other with dignity and respect. We can model ways to have constructive dialogue with differing perspectives.

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