A super PAC formed to keep conservative Justice Paul Newby on the state Supreme Court has spent more than $700,000 so far on television ads supporting him.
The N.C. Judicial Coalition has spent the money at 10 TV stations around the state, a review of those station’s records shows, for ads airing in October and early November.
Comparable outside money that might be spent to support his opponent, appellate court Judge Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, has not yet surfaced.
The super PAC expenditure significantly surpasses what the two candidates have been able to raise on their own – about $300,000 each – most of which comes from public financing.
Where that $700,000 comes from is not yet known, but it should be within the next several days as filing deadlines approach. Monday is the deadline to report third-quarter financial activity, and independent expenditure committees have to file more frequently as the election nears.
So far, the N.C. Judicial Coalition – formed by key conservatives and a former Democratic chief justice – has only disclosed a sliver of its donors: $31,500 reported to the Internal Revenue Service through September, mostly from Raleigh businessman and private school entrepreneur Bob Luddy, the committee’s chairman.
The source of the contributions that made the ad buys possible will become public only in the final days before the election – information those casting early ballots won’t have had.
The sheer size of the Judicial Coalition’s ad buys startled open-government watchdog Bob Hall of Democracy N.C.
“That’s carpet-bombing the state,” Hall said Wednesday. “It’s appalling, particularly for a judicial election, which should have more respect and not be treated like something that can be bought or auctioned off.”
Free or ‘purchased’ speech?
Others don’t think super PAC money is bad. The Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies on Wednesday promoted a new paper by Elon University law professor Scott Gaylord defending the infusion of campaign money into judicial elections as a way of exposing the candidates to a broader audience.
Judicial elections generally draw fewer voters than those for other offices. Even with public financing, the candidates for the state’s appeals court have a hard time making themselves known.
“There’s a growing body of political research that increased spending increases voter participation,” Gaylord said in a conference call with reporters. “… It has the potential to be a very positive thing.”
Even when the financing is lopsided, as appears to be the case in the Newby-Ervin race, Gaylord said, the unlimited fundraising and spending to support particular candidates encourages a more public debate.
“One of the concerns with judicial elections is people don’t know who is running,” Gaylord said. “This helps counter that, and opens the possibility for other people to weigh in as well,” through advertising, opinion pieces in the news media or other means.
The fundamental issue, as Gaylord sees it, is the right to free speech – including giving money to political candidates and issues. The impact of 2010 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals court is that people, corporations and unions can spend unlimited money to advocate for politicians.
Even if it means tagging the nonpartisan judicial candidates with a party affiliation, Gaylord says, that still benefits voters in the long run by providing more information than they might otherwise have.
Gaylord said if the super PACs aren’t forthcoming with the required financial disclosures, then states might look at further regulations. “If there’s back-room dealings and quid-pro-quo corruption, that’s a bad thing,” Gaylord said. “Voters don’t know and the candidates don’t know, either. Transparency is a positive thing.”
Hall disagrees with the free-speech argument.
“This is not really free speech. This is purchased speech,” Hall said. “This is giving power to those with money to influence an election in ways that voters don’t have the capacity to do. It really is turning the procedure over to those with cash.
“His argument is it’s fine to have an arms race in spending. But that’s not really what we want elections to become.”
Newby has said that he supports the free-speech concept that allows the unlimited spending, hoping it will help people learn about the candidates.
Ervin has said he is worried that the money will erode the public’s confidence in the judiciary, and said he would feel that way even if there were an outside group raising money on his behalf.
The amount of money being spent on judicial-race ads is not unprecedented. In a 2000 Supreme Court race between Republican I. Beverly Lake Jr. and incumbent Democrat Henry Frye, $1.1 million was spent. Lake won.
But this is the first time that outside groups have raised and spent unlimited funds to promote a candidate.
Another outside group, the Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, has given $75,000 to the North Carolina group Civitas Action, which is spending the money on Newby’s behalf. Other groups are also reported to be raising money for Newby’s re-election.
The outside influence has prompted former state attorney general and retired federal judge Lacy Thornburg earlier this week to write to the state’s news media.
“I have become increasingly concerned over news reports that political and ideological organizations and individuals, including from out of state, are participating in this election by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence who wins this Supreme Court seat,” Thornburg wrote.
“As a former attorney general, as a judge, as a citizen, I remain concerned – perhaps even a little alarmed – about what we see happening around this contest for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.”