RALEIGH — The N.C. Supreme Court, a branch of government that is supposed to be above hyper-partisan politics, is seeing a wave of outside money and negative campaign advertising as the May 6 primary approaches.
Robin Hudson, an associate justice on the state’s highest court since 2007 and a Democrat, faces challenges by two Republicans. They are Eric L. Levinson, a Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge, and Jeanette Doran, a former general counsel and executive director at the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, an organization tied to Art Pope, the state’s budget director and a leading financier for conservative candidates.
The race, ostensibly nonpartisan, has become a political free-for-all, with money flowing in from outside groups tied to noted national Republicans.
Justice For All NC, an organization that, according to campaign finance records, has received at least $650,000 from the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, took to the TV airwaves on Friday with an ad that has been described as a blistering attack on Hudson.
The ad accuses Hudson of siding with child molesters.
The case at issue was State v. Bowditch, which combined complaints from three sex offenders. They weren’t challenging on the basis of guilt or innocence, but about whether they could be punished retroactively by a law that was not in existence when they were convicted.
After their convictions, a new state law went into effect requiring satellite-based monitoring of some sex offenders. They were ordered to comply but argued they could not be given a punishment that did not exist at the time of the offense.
The case was decided 4-3 with the majority saying satellite-based monitoring was not punitive and the offenders’ claims lacked merit. Hudson was in the minority on that ruling.
Lawyers and others familiar with the 2010 ruling say the ad about that case not only distorts Hudson’s opinion but highlights how some groups are trying to politicize a branch of government that is supposed to be above the partisan fray.
“Interest groups that spend this much, this early, on attack ads are playing for keeps,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, an organization that tracks judicial campaign spending.
“After enjoying years of insulation from big-money campaigns, North Carolina is headed for its second straight big-spending circus, with judges pressured to raise millions from the parties who appear before them, and voters worried that justice is for sale,” Brandenburg added.
Republicans said political speech is protected under the Constitution and that outside spending is within the rules of politics and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Democrats contend that the interest in judicial races by national Republican organizations is part of an attempt to build a firewall around Republican redistricting maps. They also say it protects a recently adopted conservative agenda that faces constitutional challenges on many fronts.
In addition to the 2011 redistricting maps, the state’s highest court could decide cases about school vouchers, teacher tenure, new election laws that require voter IDs, and issues related to same-sex marriage.
The race for the Hudson seat has drawn much interest.
With three candidates seeking the seat, voters will decide in the May 6 primary which two are on the ballot for the general elections in November.
But this year’s primary is expected to generate much interest among Republicans as the party decides among a field of U.S. Senate candidates fighting for the chance to run against incumbent Kay Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro, in the fall.
Hudson not only has mounted her own counterattack against the ad released last week, but lawyers and elected officials from across the state have also launched email and social media campaigns trying to get Democrats out to vote.
Elaine Marshall, the N.C. Secretary of State, a Democrat with a statewide campaign base, sent out a note this week paid for by the Elaine Marshall Committee, encouraging people to vote for Hudson.
“Why is this race so important?” Marshall said in her message, “Because conservatives are running two candidates against Justice Hudson in the May 6th non-partisan primary. Judicial primaries are non-partisan, and candidates are not identified on the ballot by party.
“The right hopes that the higher conservative turnout in the Republican U.S. Senate primary combined with big corporate spending on their candidates will leave Justice Hudson in third place, which means she will no longer serve us on the North Carolina Supreme Court.”
Joseph B. Cheshire V, a Raleigh attorney, sent an email message on Tuesday. “Our state Supreme Court is teetering on the edge of being bought by out-of-state, special-interest money,” Cheshire said in his appeal to garner support for Hudson. “Only individual voters can stop this from happening. Please vote. Our future depends on it.”
As of Tuesday, available public records showed that more than $1 million has been spent on advertising in the race for the Hudson seat, with some of the expenditures by the candidates themselves.
Hudson has spent $86,320 with an ad agency, and the TV ads rebutting the child molester campaign began airing on Tuesday.
The North Carolina Chamber IE PAC, which on a state disclosure form has reported $225,000 paid to advertising agency Impact Strategies, has run ads supporting Levinson and Doran.
The group has reported contributions from a number of in-state industry sources as well as $50,000 in out-of-state funding from Koch Industries.
Gary Salamido, vice president of government affairs for the NC Chamber, said the organization has aired ads supporting the candidates that they think will be more supportive of the state’s businesses. “The business climate in North Carolina is important,” Salamido said.
Though state disclosure forms for Levinson were not yet on file late Tuesday, FCC records showed his campaign had spent $146,762 under its own name for TV ads on seven stations across the state.
A disclosure form for Doran shows no ads placed by her campaign.
Records about the Justice for All NC ad criticizing Hudson as “not tough on child molesters” show that airtime has been purchased on 10 stations. The rebuttal ad from Hudson’s campaign calls the ad “false” and touts endorsements from seven former members of the state Supreme Court.
“It’s great to have a country where we have a right to freedom of speech,” said Paul Shumaker, a consultant working on the Levinson campaign. “Let’s don’t take our eye off the real issue here, which is political free speech and the right to free speech.”
Doran said in an email response: “The recently launched independent expenditures in the race for associate justice are completely independent of my grass-roots campaign, which is based on my long standing dedication to the state Constitution and to the principle that the law should be fairly, justly and consistently applied. Our state constitutionmandates that Supreme Court Justices be elected by the voters of the State. As part of the election process, voters may consider the track records of judges and justices.”
Hudson, in a recent telephone interview, said the ads were meant to be a distraction from the real issues of the court.
She worries that the abandonment last year of public financing for appellate judicial races in North Carolina and the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case have introduced too much political spending in judicial races.
In 2012, outside groups funneled about $2.3 million into the state to help incumbent Paul Newby, the conservative in the nonpartisan race, push back a challenge by Sam Ervin IV.
That was the most outside money of any race in the state other than governor. With that victory, conservatives maintained a 4-3 majority on the bench.
“It’s hard to know what the impact will be,” Hudson said this week in response to a question about the influence of outside groups on a statewide race. “It’s such a new phenomenon. It could have a big and not very positive effect on the workings of the court. It hasn’t happened yet, but I think it’s important that we make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1