Roles and Responsibilities of the Chief Justice

When I wrote about down-ballot election results a few weeks ago, I said that the election for Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court was too close to call. That remains the case. Current Associate Justice Paul Newby has a 409 vote lead over current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and a recount is underway.

Most people know that the Chief Justice is one of seven jurists on the North Carolina Supreme Court and that, like his or her fellow Associate Justices, the Chief Justice is elected to serve an eight-year term. Given the pandemic, many may also be familiar with the Chief Justice’s authority in response to catastrophic conditions to extend deadlines and periods of limitation and to issue emergency directives necessary to ensure the continuing operations of the courts. G.S. 7A-39. Readers may, however, be less familiar with other aspects of the Chief Justice’s authority and responsibilities that are essential to the administration of justice. The remainder of this post will highlight some of these lesser known roles and responsibilities, particularly as they relate to criminal proceedings.

Impeachment. The Chief Justice must preside over an impeachment trial for the Governor or Lieutenant Governor of the State, but does not vote on the outcome. G.S. 123-2. According to this post from the Civitas Institute, only one North Carolina governor has ever been impeached, so Chief Justices have not often been called upon to exercise this authority.

Assignment of Trial Judges. The Chief Justice is responsible for assigning superior court judges to terms of superior court in accordance with the rules of the Supreme Court. N.C. Const. art. IV, § 11. The Chief Justice also is authorized to transfer district court judges from one district to another for temporary or specialized duty. Id.

If the presiding trial judge in a capital case becomes disabled or unable to conduct the sentencing proceeding, the Chief Justice must designate a judge to conduct the proceeding. G.S. 15A-2003.

Administrative Office of the Courts Leadership. The Chief Justice appoints the Director and Assistant Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) who serves at the pleasure of the Chief Justice. G.S. 7A-341, -342.

Three-judge Panels. The Chief Justice is responsible for appointing three-judge panels for the following proceedings:

  • Applications for electronic surveillance orders. G.S. 15A-291.
  • Judicial review following a determination by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that there is sufficient evidence of factual innocence. G.S. 15A-1469.
  • Actions challenging redistricting and claims that acts of the General Assembly are unconstitutional. G.S. 1-267.1.

Emergency and Recalled Justices and Judges.

  • The Chief Justice designates from the group of commissioned emergency district, superior and special superior court judges which judges are among the 10 active emergency superior court judges and the 25 active emergency district court judges who may hold regular or special sessions of the court from which the judge retired. G.S. 7A-52.
  • The Chief Justice may recall an emergency justice (or a justice who has retired because of reaching the mandatory retirement age) to serve temporarily in the place of a Supreme Court Justice who is temporarily incapable of performing efficiently and effectively the duties of his or her office. G.S. 7A-39.5; -39.13. The Chief Justice also may recall an emergency or retired justice to fill a vacancy on the Court. G.S. 7A-39.14.

Designating Chiefs and Senior Residents.

  • The Chief Justice designates one of the judges on the Court of Appeals to serve as Chief Judge. G.S. 7A-16.
  • The Chief Justice designates the senior resident superior court judge in Wake County. G.S. 7A-41.1(b)(3). In other districts, the regular resident superior court judge with the most continuous service is the senior resident superior court judge. G.S. 7A-41.1(b)(2).
  • The Chief Justice designates a district court judge to serve as chief district court judge in any district with more than one district court judge. G.S. 7A-141. The chief district court judge does not have a term of office, but serves at the pleasure of the Chief Justice. In a single judge district, the lone district court judge is the chief judge.

Appointing Commission Members. The Chief Justice appoints members of several commissions, including the following:

  • Innocence Inquiry Commission. The Chief Justice appoints five of the eight members of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. Commission members serve three-year terms. G.S. 15A-1463. The Chief Justice may remove commission members for cause.  G.S. 15A-1464.
  • Judicial Standards Commission. The Chief Justice appoints the judge-members of the state’s Judicial Standards Commission: one Court of Appeals judge, two superior court judges, and two district court judges. The Court of Appeals judge serves at the pleasure of the Chief Justice, while the other judges serve six-year terms. G.S. 7A-375.
  • North Carolina Courts Commission. The Chief Justice appoints seven of the 28 members of the North Carolina Courts Commission. G.S. 7A-506(a). Commission members serve four-year terms. G.S. 7A-506(f).
  • North Carolina State Council for Interstate Adult Offender Supervision. The Chief Justice appoints a superior court and district court judge for three-year terms on the State Council. G.S. 148-65.6.
  • Sentencing Commission. The Chief Justice must appoint a sitting or former justice or judge to serve  at two-year term as chair of the Sentencing Commission. G.S. 164-37; -38.
  • Commission on Indigent Defense Services. The Chief Justice appoints a current or former judge to serve a four-year term on the 13-member Commission on Indigent Defense Services. G.S. 7A-498.4.
  • Justice Reinvestment Council. The Chief Justice appoints a superior court judge, district court judge, district attorney, and criminal defense attorney to three-year terms on the 13-member justice reinvestment council. G.S. 143B-1161.
  • Criminal Justice Information Network Governing Board. The Chief Justice appoints six members to four-year terms on this 21-member board: the AOC Director or other AOC employee, a prosecutor recommended by the Conference of District Attorneys, two members who are superior or district court judges, a magistrate recommended by the North Carolina Magistrates’ Association, and a clerk of superior court recommended by the North Carolina Association of Clerks of Superior Court. G.S. 143B-1391.

Service on Commissions. The Chief Justice serves by virtue of the office on various commissions, including the Governor’s Crime Commission (G.S. 143B-1100) and the State Judicial Council (for which the Chief Justice is the chairperson) (G.S. 7A-409(a)(1)).

Given these roles and responsibilities as well as many others not mentioned here, the election of a new Chief Justice can result in leadership and operational changes that extend beyond the Supreme Court bench. We will have to stay tuned to see whether a new Chief Justice has been elected and, if so, what changes he will usher in.