Incumbent state Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, fueled by an unprecedented amount of outside money that helped him overcome an opponent from a family of well-known North Carolina lawyers, defeated challenger appellate Judge Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV on Tuesday.
It is widely considered to be one of the most important races of this year’s elections. Several controversial issues that arose out of the Republican takeover of the General Assembly are likely to end up in the state’s highest court, including redistricting.
The N.C. Supreme Court race attracted far more attention than usual. Thanks to an unprecedented gush of outside money from super PACs, TV viewers across the state were introduced to Newby through the corny but memorable “banjo ad” that aired on a dozen stations over the past three weeks. There was also a more restrained Newby ad and an attack ad that tied Ervin to disgraced former Gov. Mike Easley.
The ads and the controversy over the infusion of so much money – somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million total raised for both sides, although mostly for Newby – generated unprecedented news coverage of what is usually a low-profile campaign.
A nonpartisan elections group and about three dozen Democratic lawyers and former judges from around the state raised a red flag about the influence – real or perceived – that so much outside money might have on the independence of the judiciary.
Others, including Ervin, also raised the concern that the spending would undermine the public-financing system in North Carolina, which was a national model when it was enacted in 2006, as a way to help educate voters about the candidates and limit the need for outside money. The Supreme Court candidates could only raise about $80,000 on their own in order to receive $240,100 in state funds.
But a Federal Elections Commission ruling in 2010 following two federal court cases created independent expenditure committees that could raise and spend unlimited money to support or oppose candidates. They were dubbed “super PACs,” and this year’s Supreme Court race in North Carolina spawned two of them, raising money through a variety of interests, both in-state and out.
Although the office is nonpartisan, it was easy to distinguish the two candidates simply by their associations. National and state Republican organizations, business interests and other conservative groups lined up behind Newby with more than $2.5 million. Ervin had the support of the state’s Democratic organization, trial lawyers and education interests. Somewhere around $200,000 in outside money was spent on Ervin’s behalf.
Based on party registration, the court has tilted conservative by a 4-3 split, and that’s why groups like a national Republican Party offshoot sent more than $1 million to keep Newby on the bench.
On the campaign trail, Newby and Ervin struggled to rise above the fray, even as the money and politics swirled around them. In campaign forums, Ervin hewed close to the role of inscrutable jurist, stressing that politics played no part in his decisions as an appellate court judge, and would not if elected to the state’s highest court.
Newby said he was also impartial and fair, but he has never shied away from public appearances with religious conservatives. He also more readily discussed his judicial philosophies, which he described as a belief in the separation of powers and “judicial self-restraint.”
Newby, 57, has not been a radical jurist during his eight years on the court. He has said he tends to come down on the side of precedent – upholding the court’s previous rulings rather than striking out a stance as a maverick. He earned the endorsements of several former Supreme Court justices from both parties.
Newby, although backed by the bulk of the money, felt he faced an uphill battle in the campaign to overcome the Ervin family name. Ervin, 56, comes from a lineage of North Carolina jurists; he is the grandson of the late U.S. Senate Watergate Committee chairman Sam Ervin.