New NC chief justice seeks vaccine access for open courts

North Carolina

FILE – In this Jan. 2, 2013 file photo, the Honorable Paul Newby addresses those in attendance before Susan Martin (R-Wilson) takes the oath of office for the North Carolina House of Representatives, in Wilson, N.C. Candidates in North Carolina’s yet-decided races for Supreme Court chief justice and attorney general awaited final official results on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, from several counties, two of which had to adjust previous tallies due to administrative errors. Current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and challenger Newby, the senior associate justice, remained in an extremely close election. A statewide recount in the race was likely as hundreds of votes separated the two from nearly 5.4 million counted. (Brad Coville/The Wilson Times via AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s new chief justice says he’s asked Gov. Roy Cooper to consider getting COVID-19 vaccines more quickly to local court officials to meet a state constitutional requirement that “all courts shall be open.”

Speaking at Wednesday’s online installation ceremony for himself and two new justices, Chief Justice Paul Newby said “access to justice through the courts is not a luxury — it’s a mandate.”

Newby, a Republican who as a associate justice narrowly unseated then-Chief Justice Cheri Beasley in November, said he’s asked Cooper to “enhance the availability of the vaccine to the courthouse personnel who bravely and I even say courageously open the courts to fulfill our constitutional mandate.”

Under the current schedule from the state Department of Health and Human Services, essential workers in the legal field who aren’t at least 65 or who have high-risk medical conditions could have to wait for some time before having vaccine access. Cooper’s press office didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking a response to Newby’s request. Data early this week showed North Carolina lagging most other states when it came to administering vaccine doses to individuals.

Sharon Gladwell, a North Carolina Judicial Branch spokeswoman, said the vaccination request seeks to cover all court officials, including clerks, district attorneys and magistrates.

Court activities in all 100 counties have been dramatically scaled back since the pandemic began.

During 2020, Beasley largely issued statewide orders delaying jury trials for months and stopping nonessential activities. By the fall, Beasley said jury trials could resume if the top local Superior Court judge created a safety plan. A case surge led Beasley in mid-December to delay most court proceedings statewide for 30 days, expiring Jan. 13.

During their campaign, Newby took issue with Beasley’s statewide court limits and prohibitions, saying local courts should decide how to operate. Newby on Wednesday acknowledged the issue was a difficult one, calling the balance between health protections and the mandate “the great stress of our times.”

More than half of the county courthouses in the state have been partially or completely closed due to COVID-19 cases, and hundreds of Judicial Branch officials or employees have tested positive, the state court system has said.

Wednesday’s installation ceremony also included the public swearings-in of new Associate Justices Phil Berger Jr. and Tamara Barringer, who also are Republicans. The three justices had already taken their oaths early in the new year.

The ceremony was conducted virtually due to virus safety concerns, with the justices and immediate family members in the downtown Raleigh courtroom to recite their oaths. The media and other members of the public weren’t allowed to attend in person.

The seven-member court now has four registered Democrats and three Republicans, compared to a 6-1 Democratic seat advantage since mid-2019.

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