Thirty-nine predominately Democratic lawyers and former judges from around the state on Friday expressed concern over the flow of outside money into judicial campaigns.
The statement they issued comes as spending by a conservative super PAC in support of incumbent Justice Paul Newby has escalated beyond $800,000 spent on advertising in recent weeks. Newby is running against appellate Judge Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV.
“Judicial elections have generally been civil and focused on qualifications, without the expenditures of millions of dollars,” the statement says. “Our tradition of keeping judicial elections free from politics is now threatened.”
The statement says the unlimited spending by super PACs undermines public confidence in the independence of judges, and raises the concern that judges might decide cases favorable to campaign contributors. Even when judges don’t rule that way, it says, “the distinction between judges and politicians may be blurred.”
Signing the statement are former N.C. Supreme Court justices Harry Martin, Willis Whichard and Phil Carlton, former appeals court judges Sidney Eagles Jr. and Jack Cozart and five former superior court judges. The rest are lawyers from throughout the state.
Newby and Ervin have each received $240,100 in public financing, which is meant to put a lid on the cost of judicial campaigns. Candidates agree to limit their fundraising in exchange for the money. That system, and making elections to the appellate bench nonpartisan, was established in 2002.
In 2006, a nonprofit group called Fair Judges spent $200,000 to benefit several judicial candidates. This year, an education advocacy committee is spending an as-yet unreported amount of money on mailers promoting Ervin. The N.C. Chamber, which has endorsed Newby, reports spending about $6,000 on billboards and mailers in that race after receiving $10,000 from a Washington, D.C.-based business PAC.
But for the first time, thanks to rulings by federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, newly defined independent expenditure groups can raise and spend unlimited funds to help elect or defeat candidates. The N.C. Judicial Coalition, formed by prominent North Carolina conservatives, is buying TV ads promoting Newby, which creates a lop-sided contest.
“This type of activity is a threat – perhaps mortal – to the public financing system,” Ervin said in a phone interview Friday. “… It’s going to be very hard for future candidates to go into public financing. I think it’s a very serious threat.”
Newby has said he agrees with the free-speech concept behind the rulings that allow the super PACs to express their political beliefs by raising and spending money as they see fit. On Friday, his campaign strategist, Paul Shumaker, called the statement issued by the judges on Friday blatantly partisan and hypocritical.
“Our history of (partisan) judicial elections was OK until Republicans started winning and the Democratic-controlled legislature decided to go the non-party route,” Shumaker said. “They didn’t step forward in 2006 with Fair Judges, which supported an overwhelming slate of Democratic candidates.”
Newby has said he has an uphill battle winning voters just on name recognition alone. Voters old enough to remember the 1970s Watergate hearings may recall the role that Ervin’s grandfather, the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, played as chairman of the committee charged with getting to the bottom of then-President Richard Nixon’s cover-up.
At the end of September, before the TV ads touting Newby started airing, polling showed Ervin leading Newby 31 percent to 23 percent.