Sour notes

Big money muscles its way into the Ervin-Newby race for a Supreme Court seat.

November 1, 2012 

Ervin v. Newby – it’s turning into a major Supreme Court decision.

The choice between Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV and incumbent Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby for a seat on the state’s highest court awaits the voters’ verdict Tuesday. Even though it’s had political implications all along, this year’s sole Supreme Court contest has been on the back burner for months. Now, mostly because of a flurry of “independent” spending on Newby’s behalf, it’s come to full boil.

As a result, North Carolina voters will be doing more than simply picking between two well qualified jurists. They’ll also be deciding whether big money – much of it spent on a banjo-strumming TV ad for Newby that’s recently gotten lots of play – will dominate our judicial elections, which up to now have been relatively restrained affairs.

Put another way, will the state’s system of public financing of statewide judicial races – a system that has worked well – be swamped by politics and outside money?

To be sure, politics and judging are no strangers. The fact that Newby is a registered Republican and Ervin a Democrat carries some weight, particularly with the GOP’s far-reaching redistricting plan up for a likely court decision (a factor cited in The N&O’s Oct. 7 editorial endorsement of Ervin). With the high court currently split 4-3 Republican, an Ervin win could tip the balance in some cases.

Newby for sheriff?

Public financing and tradition have, mercifully, dampened the flames of partisanship in selecting North Carolina’s top judges. But with the advent of significant spending by “independent” groups on ads – whether for Newby this year, or on behalf of (mostly) Democrats in 2006 – judicial elections are moving farther away from the ideal of nonpartisan justice and closer to being overrun by groups with special interests to advance.

Exhibit One has to be that banjo-strumming pitchman for Newby. The Supreme Court justice, the fast-talking musician intones, is “tough but fair.” So, he warns, “criminals best beware” – as a pair of bumbling bad guys perform a self-arrest by hopping into the back of a Newby campaign vehicle, headed straight for the hoosegow.

Still, corny as it is, the ad might be fitting in a country sheriff’s race. And granted, Supreme Court campaign ads needn’t be learned treatises on the law. But this one is an insult to the citizenry.

Money equals speech, they tell us. Yet this is the speech they come up with!

Also: From the ad’s theme, you’d think criminal justice was a big issue in the Ervin-Newby race. It’s not. And it’s certainly not what the ad’s sponsors – to the tune of a reported $1.6 million statewide – are all about.

Justice in a trap

Funders include the Republican State Leadership Committee, based in Washington, D.C. ($800,000-plus), North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care ($100,000), American Federation for Children (also $100,000) and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians ($10,000). Each outfit has a specific interest – legislative and congressional redistricting, opposition to malpractice suits, in favor of private schools, casino gambling – far removed from the ad’s theme of crime control.

That’s misleading, cynically so.

Dangerous too. Any of those issues could come before the state Supreme Court. Why burden a Supreme Court justice with the weight of having major interest-group funders – of whatever party or interest – with so much importance to his or her campaign?

It was to avoid just that trap, and the perception of funders’ influence, that North Carolina opted for public financing of state-level judicial races. That system still stands (both Ervin and Newby are participating), but big-time outside spending on the candidates’ behalf threatens to make it obsolete. At this point, only the voters can rescue it.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service