Justice Says Respect from the Bench is Important
Cheri Beasley can’t recall a time as she was growing up that she didn’t volunteer for something.
She credits her mother, the late Lou Beasley, for that.
“She really taught me the value of public service,” said Beasley, who recently was appointed as an associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Her mother was a graduate social work educator and administrator, including stints as dean of the college of social work, nursing and human performance at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., and dean of the graduate school and school of social work at Clark-Atlanta University in Atlanta.
“She was always at the forefront of community issues,” Beasley, a 2012 Council of State Governments Toll Fellow, said of her mother. “I just saw that growing up and I saw the importance of being a part of the community and the obligation, really, to make a difference.”
So when it came time to choose a career after graduating from Douglas Collage at Rutgers University, she wanted something that would make a difference. She considered social work, as well as teaching and public administration. Instead, she chose to go to law school at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
An internship at the Human Rights Commission in Nashville set her on the course for her future endeavors. That agency was charged with investigating allegations of discrimination based on race, gender and/or handicap in employment and public accommodations situations.
“I realized that an interest I had in the ability of the legal process to aid people in securing their rights,” she said.
After graduating law school, Beasley and her new husband, Curtis Owens, whom she had met at Rutgers, moved to North Carolina. The couple has twin 12-year-old sons, Matthew and Thomas.
Beasley began her career working in legal departments in corporations in the Research Triangle Park outside Raleigh. She worked in the district attorney’s office in Raleigh for a brief period, then served as an assistant public defender in Fayetteville, N.C.
Then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed her to serve as a district court judge, and she was subsequently elected twice, serving about 10 years at the district court level. She was elected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008.
Then, around Thanksgiving last year, Gov. Bev Perdue appointed Beasley as an associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Although her appointment was effective Dec. 18, Beasley was sworn in during a public ceremony Jan. 3. She replaces former Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, one of her mentors.
Beasley is mindful of the responsibilities that come with being a judge, regardless of the court level.
“There is no greater responsibility than making decisions that are hugely important in people’s lives,” Beasley said. “People don’t come to the court system, generally speaking, when they’re happy. There’s some sort of discontentment in their lives and they’re looking for a fair solution and they’re looking for justice.
“For me, there was just nothing more meaningful than being able to be a part of that process in this way.”
Her experience in the court system has shaped the advice she would give on leadership.
“Do what’s right regardless of whether or not it is popular and treat people the way you would want to be treated,” she said. “Everybody deserves respect. There is not a person who comes to the court system or a person who is part of the community who is not important. Everybody really does deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”
While she has no agenda as she enters this new phase of her judicial career, Beasley will take all she’s learned to the bench of North Carolina’s highest court. That includes her recent experience with the CSG Toll Fellows program.
“The fellowship really caused me to be introspective about who I am as a person and as a leader and to think about ways in which I can improve myself in both ways,” she said.
Because the program includes officials from all three branches of state government, Beasley said, she gained new perspectives into the legislative and executive branches.
“That’s really, in addition to the introspection, the whole point—being able to see the ways that we can work together and complement each other in furthering the goal of service to the people of our respective states,” she said. “That has already begun to help me do my job in a better way.”