After nearly 20 years on the U.S. District Court bench, Judge James Beaty Jr. has announced that he will take senior status in June.
Beaty, who has served on North Carolina’s Middle District in Winston-Salem since 1994, is quick to point out that taking senior status is not equivalent to retirement.
“There’s no immediate notion of ‘I’m leaving the bench,’” said Beaty, who grew up in Thomasville. “I’m not going anywhere – there’s still work to be done.”
Senior status refers to a combination of age and experience that allows judges to abbreviate their workloads without fully relinquishing their duties on the bench. According to www.uscourts.gov, “Beginning at age 65, a judge may retire at his or her current salary or take senior status after performing 15 years of active service … a sliding scale of increasing age and decreasing service results in eligibility for retirement compensation at age 70 with a minimum of 10 years of service…”
By taking senior status, Beaty, who will turn 65 in June 2014, will be allowed to continue to practice and retain his current salary; however, his seat will be opened up for new nominations.
“Most people think of it as retiring,” he said. “I don’t like to think of it that way, because I’m not going anywhere.”
Beaty, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of his former law partner, Judge Richard Erwin, said he chose to take senior status “to give somebody else an opportunity to be considered for the position.
“It creates a vacancy for my position so that those who are interested will then seek the presidential appointment to replace me,” the University of North Carolina School of Law alumnus explained. “I’m sure a lot of people are interested.”
Prior to his appointment to the federal bench, Beaty served for 13 years as a Superior Court judge.
“Judge Beaty’s had a long and distinguished career,” noted current Superior Court Judge L. Todd Burke. “That in and of itself serves as an inspiration to any young person aspiring to pursue a career in the legal profession or to be a judge.”
Beaty is currently the only African American on the federal District Court bench statewide, and one of only two African Americans to ever serve in that capacity in North Carolina, but the father of one said he doesn’t spend much time concerning himself with the color of his skin.
“It’s not something that I’ve given much thought to. I think about the work that I have to get done,” he said matter-of-factly. “You do justice to people and be compassionate about your work, so it’s not everyday I’m thinking about that particular point.”
Though Beaty is nonchalant about his achievements, other members of the legal community are not. District Court Judge Camille Banks-Payne said Beaty, who swore her in when she was first licensed to practice law in 2001, has been an inspiration to her.
“Overall, I just hold him in high regard. I see him as one who has helped pave the way for opportunities for African Americans to be on the bench,” declared the North Carolina Central School of Law alumna, adding that she hopes to someday have a legacy similar to Beaty’s. “…He ascended to the bench in an era when African Americans didn’t have the same opportunities, but he has retained his position and has made us, and particularly me, very proud.”
Fred Adams II, a local attorney and president of the Winston-Salem Bar Association, said Beaty’s contributions and impact are far reaching.
“I think his legacy will speak for itself. When you look at someone who has served or have been involved in this legal community for almost 40 years … you can’t help but respect what he’s accomplished or be inspired by what he’s accomplished,” Adams declared. “He certainly has set a high standard that will live on.”
The Raleigh-based nonprofit NC Policy Watch is also concerned that Beaty’s retirement will leave the state devoid of a federal District Court judge of color and will create a second vacancy on the state’s federal bench.
President Obama nominated Guyana, South America-born Jennifer May-Parker, the chief of the appellate division for the U.S. Attorney’s Eastern N.C. District, to fill a long vacant federal judgeship in the Eastern District, but U.S. Sen. Richard Burr has held up her nomination. Without the greenlight from Burr, it is unlikely that May-Parker will get a chance to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Beaty is reluctant to reflect on his career and achievements, because he said his work is still ongoing, but he said the privilege and status he has achieved thus far aren’t lost on him.
“I’ve been blessed and privileged to have the opportunity to serve on both the state court and the federal court,” noted Beaty, who also serves as a deacon at his church, United Metropolitan MBC. “I am here because others have placed confidence in me and I’m just privileged and blessed to have that opportunity.”