Commentary

A surprise primary could cost Democrats a high court seat

ned.barnett@newsobserver.comMarch 30, 2014 

This column incorrectly identified Justice Cheri Beasley's opponent. She will face Michael Robinson, not Ola Lewis.

State Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson is a graduate of Yale and UNC Law School with extensive experience as an attorney and a member of the state Court of Appeals, but her main qualification may be that she loves what she does. Hudson enjoys poring over briefs and law books and she relishes the art and craft of writing opinions.

Hudson, a friendly and energetic mother of two, says her children roll their eyes over their mom’s fascination with the dry and arcane.

“My kids say I ‘geek out’ on the details,” she says.

But Hudson’s close eye for the law missed a big detail from politics. One of only two Democrats on the seven-member court, Hudson assumed she would be facing a general challenge in the fall from Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson, a Republican. But near the end of the filing period, a second opponent emerged, Jeanette Doran.

“She came out of nowhere,” Hudson said.

Doran is a former general counsel and executive director at the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, a group backed by Art Pope, the state budget director and a leading funder of conservative groups and candidates. Doran was appointed to chair the board of review at the stat Division of Employment Security where she handles appeals of unemployment compensation claims.

Doran’s entry recasts the election and complicates Hudson’s efforts to hold her seat. With three candidates in the race, the law requires that the field be reduced to two through the state’s primary election in May. That primary will feature a high profile and highly contested race for the Republican Party’s U.S. Senate nomination. Hudson, despite eight years on the state’s highest court, is little known statewide and could be swept out in a primary election dominated by Republican voters.

The suddenly altered political situation in an ostensibly nonpartisan race raises a question of whether someone is playing hardball politics to unseat an experienced, highly qualified and widely respected Supreme Court justice. Hudson says she doesn’t know whether Doran’s entry is a political gambit, but she says, “If someone is behind the scenes playing games, it’s not good for the court. It’s much too serious.”

Doran says she made the decision to enter the race for a Supreme Court seat on her own. With Republican-backed laws facing several constitutional challenges, Doran said the court needs the expertise she developed during eight years at the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law.

“When I looked at the composition of the Supreme Court, I thought there really weren’t enough justices who had hands on experience litigating state constitutional claims,” she says.

Doran’s candidacy then serves two potential ends. She could knock out one of the last Democrats on the high court and she cold ultimately bolster the defense of hotly disputed laws passed by the Republican-led General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The court’s other Democrat, Cheri Beasley, a former Court of Appeals judge, is being challenged by conservative Mike Robinson of Winston-Salem. Chief Justice Sarah Parker, also a Democrat, will be retiring in August when she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 72.

Doran says Pope didn’t encourage her to run, but she spoke to him soon after filing and he “was very supportive.” She said he and groups affiliated with him have not contributed to her campaign.

Oddly, former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr who headed the NCICL for two and half years and was Doran’s boss there, has endorsed the other Republican in the race, Levinson.

Orr says Doran’s moving to the Supreme Court would be “a big step,” but he doubts there was any plot to have her force a primary.

“If there’s a conspiracy, I haven’t heard about it,” he says.

Levinson welcomes a primary saying it will give voters a longer and wider exposure to supreme court candidates. “Any time the public has an opportunity to learn about candidates I believe it’s a positive thing for North Carolina,” he says.

All three candidates will run in an environment made more difficult and more political with the help of Pope. He has long opposed public financing for appellate court races and last year helped to push through legislation to end the funding. Doran also argued for an end to the public funding from her post at the NCICL.

Now appellate court candidates they to beg harder from more special interests, a situation that Hudson says endangers the independence of the court.

“It’s a great fear of a lot of judges that we don’t want our judges to be bought,” she says.

Hudson has raised $133,000 and is throwing herself into what she calls “the most important race out there that nobody knows about.” She argues that her 25 years of practicing law and terms on the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court will serve the court well. And she worries that efforts to put all conservatives on the court won’t serve the public well. “If all of (the court) is composed of people who think the same way, there’s not much in the way of checks and balances,” she says.

But Doran says not to worry about a Republican sweep sweeping out diversity of legal views.

“Just because just people are registered with one particular party doesn't mean they have the same philosophy. There’s a lot of diversity within a given political party,” she says. In any event, she says, democracy will prevail even if it has to put a Democrat through a heavily Republican primary.

Doran says, “If the voters want seven justices of one party, that’s entirely up to them.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com.

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