Judges' order has skeptics

Staff WritersOctober 30, 2003 

The state Supreme Court's highly unusual order Tuesday clearing one of its members of any conflict of interest in a controversial slander case is causing concerns of its own.

Some other judges question privately whether it was appropriate for the Supreme Court to step in and make a pronouncement that could appear self-serving or intimidating.

In the order, Justice Mark Martin and three other justices suggested that Martin had no conflict of interest when he voted in May on an appeal in a slander lawsuit against Attorney General Roy Cooper. As an article in The News & Observer noted Tuesday, Martin had received $800 in campaign contributions since 1994 from one of the plaintiffs, Raleigh lawyer Gene Boyce.

The court's order said there was no reason for Martin or the other three justices who ruled on the case -- and who issued the order -- to have recused themselves, because they had no conflicts under ethics rules for judges. Three of the seven justices withdrew without explanation.

The order was unusual not only because no one requested it, but also because it cleared one of the court's members, which could seem premature or intimidating to the other judges who might be called on to weigh the conduct of members of the Supreme Court.

Under state law, if an ethics complaint were filed against a Supreme Court justice, a panel of judges from the N.C. Court of Appeals would decide the issue.

Martin did not respond Wednesday to an invitation to comment on it. But he reiterated that he remained impartial and participated in the case properly.

"I have served the people of North Carolina for a long time," he said, "and I take great pride in doing my job with integrity."

Anti-fund-raising

Is there such a thing as an anti-fund-raising letter? If such an animal exists, a recent message from state Rep. John Rhodes of Mecklenburg is a classic specimen.

In a two-page e-mail message, Rhodes asks fellow Republicans and conservatives in Mecklenburg County to "vocally and visibly protest" Republican House Speaker Richard Morgan's fund-raiser Nov. 5 at the Charlotte City Club.

Rhodes, a Morgan foe, said he wanted to spread the fight in Raleigh "to grass-roots Republicans around North Carolina." His letter says Morgan conspired with Democrats "to undermine Republican values and principles."

Rhodes contends that Morgan will use his political money to defeat his Republican enemies and engineer a close Democrat-Republican election mix to keep himself in power.

Rhodes guesses that several thousand people got the e-mail note.

As it happens, Morgan was among them. He decided that the letter says more about Rhodes than about himself, and he had an assistant forward it to dozens of other state legislators.

Morgan wouldn't respond point-by-point to the letter, but he said he wasn't worried about Rhodes' call to arms hurting his fund-raising effort.

"I don't think anything John Rhodes writes will hurt anything that I do," Morgan said.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said he lent his name to Morgan's host list, as he does for other Republicans' local fund-raisers, but he said he contributed no money. McCrory said he'll support every Republican running for the legislature and will contribute money to the state Republican Party after his own re-election campaign.

"I'm not getting involved in this in-fighting," he said. "I just ask them to get their act together."

By staff writers Matthew Eisley and Lynn Bonner. Eisley can be reached at 829-4538 or meisley@newsobserver.com.

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