Candidates jockey for state's highest courts in critical election year

cjarvis@newsobserver.comJanuary 4, 2014 

  • Issues facing the state Supreme Court

    •  Redistricting: The court will take up the contested GOP maps for legislative and congressional districts next week.

    •  Education: A number of lawsuits could end up with the high court, including those dealing with funding for pre-kindergarten programs, and vouchers for charter schools.

    •  Death penalty: Nearly all death-row inmates filed claims under a law that the legislature repealed. The Supreme Court could ultimately take up that issue if lawsuits are filed. A lawsuit challenging the protocol for administering lethal injections is on hold with the Court of Appeals, but it could proceed.

    •  Election law: Challenges to the General Assembly’s sweeping elections law, including the requirement that voters provide photo identification, could also reach the court.

The Republicans’ all-out effort to defeat U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro, is the biggest political battle looming in North Carolina in 2014, but a handful of other campaigns will determine who become the most powerful judges in the state.

The seven elections are in the appellate courts. Most significantly, four are on the seven-member N.C. Supreme Court, where registered Republican justices have long held a 4-3 majority.

With three of those four seats currently held by Democrats, the GOP momentum that has swept North Carolina over the past three years could increase the Republican majority if it continues. So far, Democrats haven’t yet come up with someone to run against Justice Mark Martin for the chief justice seat being vacated by Sarah Parker, who in August will reach the mandatory retirement age of 72.

If voters cast ballots along ideological lines in these nonpartisan judicial elections – and that is exactly what interest groups will try to convince them to do through an anticipated massive infusion of outside money – then the Supreme Court could look very different a year from now.

The outcome will have an effect on what ultimately becomes law in North Carolina, from state and federal legislative maps to education to the death penalty and other constitutional issues.

Longtime Republican strategist Paul Shumaker, who is working on Martin’s campaign for chief justice, said Friday that the Senate race might generate needed attention for the judicial races, which are usually low-profile contests where few voters can name the candidates.

“Traditionally, they have been overlooked, despite the fact they are an equal and separate third branch of government,” Shumaker said. “Seven members of the court can undo what 170 legislators and a governor can do.”

Shumaker said the growing number of unaffiliated voters deciding candidates in the nonpartisan elections creates challenges and opportunities: It takes a lot of money to reach voters across the state through advertising and other means.

PACs will be active again

In 2012, North Carolina saw a record-breaking amount of money spent to keep Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, on the court in the face of a challenge by appeals court Judge Sam Ervin IV.

That campaign became a $4.4 million race, with $3.8 million of it coming from outside groups. The flood of money was largely due to the rise of independent expenditure committees – super PACs – that can spend unlimited money to promote or defeat candidates. Most of that was spent on Newby’s behalf.

One of the big spenders in that race, the N.C. Judicial Coalition, will be back in the game this year, one of its founders, former state GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer, said Friday.

“We plan to be very active,” Fetzer said. “I think it’s the most important state election in North Carolina.”

Fetzer said he anticipates Democrats will also put a lot of resources into some of the judicial campaigns, since their chances of replacing the governor and GOP majority in the General Assembly in the near future seem slim.

John Davis, a veteran political analyst in Raleigh, says Democrats are well aware of the GOP momentum and the potentially vulnerable three Supreme Court seats. They will likely pick their races carefully, he said.

“If you just look at the numbers, odds are Republicans are going to strengthen their partisan advantage on that court,” Davis said Friday. “I think where Democrats are in North Carolina, until they recover as a political war machine, they may not be able to take advantage of every opportunity.”

Davis also thinks the amount of money that will be spent on the judicial races will be unprecedented for a mid-term election.

A show of support

The field for the four Supreme Court seats and for three seats on the 15-member N.C. Court of Appeals will become clear over the next two months, with a filing deadline at the end of February. But the main contenders have already announced.

The Supreme Court and Court of Appeals jurists serve eight-year terms. Parker, who must retire at the end of her term this year, is a Democrat.

Martin came out early with a show of support. He filed for the the chief justice seat last March and began raising money. He has raised $90,000 as of six months ago.

He publicly announced his candidacy in May, when he announced he had been endorsed by all five living former chief justices, which includes three Democrats and two Republicans. Supreme Court justices often support the re-election of their colleagues, for consistency and experience.

Martin is the most senior member of the Supreme Court, and has more than 20 years experience on the bench, having served on that court, the appeals court and superior court.

Two appeals court judges are vying to fill Martin’s seat on the Supreme Court: Ervin, a Democrat, makes his second attempt at the higher court. His colleague Robert N. Hunter Jr., a Republican, is also running.

Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat who was elected in 2006, is running for re-election. Superior Court judge and former appeals court Judge Eric Levinson, a Republican from Charlotte, is running for Hudson's seat. Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, was appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012 and faces election for the first time. Ola M. Lewis, a superior court judge from Brunswick County who changed her party registration from Democrat to Republican in 2003, is running for Beasley's seat.

On the Court of Appeals, the seats up for election belong to Judge Robert C. Hunter Jr., a Democrat who is retiring; Judge Donna Stroud, a Republican who was elected in 2006; and Judge Mark Davis, a Democrat whom Perdue appointed in 2012.

Candidates for the appeals court seats who have emerged are Lucy Inman, a Democratic special Superior Court judge from Raleigh; William F. Southern III, a Republican District Court judge from Stokes County. Also running is District Court Judge Paul A. Holcombe III of Clayton. He is challenging Davis for his seat.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576; Twitter: @CraigJ_NandO

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