A year ago, the North Carolina legislature adopted new laws and policies that sent the state on a broad swing to the political right.
Now the state’s courts are grappling with a host of legal issues that divide along partisan lines – new election laws, school vouchers, environmental regulations, abortion clinic restrictions, congressional and legislative redistricting, and more.
And judicial campaigns, technically nonpartisan, have become steeped in politics as the cases make their way through the courts.
Partisan interest groups have invested millions of dollars in the races for four seats on the N.C. Supreme Court, an arm of government that is supposed to be above hyper-partisanship.
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The candidates seeking eight-year terms on the state’s highest court avoid opportunities to express their views on hot-button issues. As they crisscross the state to participate in forums, meet and greets and other routine campaign events, they talk about the law and integrity, and they promise steely independence from the influence of the big money.
Republicans control both houses of the General Assembly and the governor’s office, and until last month held a 4-3 advantage on the state’s highest court.
But the mandatory retirement of Sarah Parker, the chief justice from 2006 until the end of August, opened up a spot on the bench. Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Associate Justice Mark Martin, a Republican, to fill the vacancy until the Nov. 4 elections. Robert N. Hunter Jr., a Republican who was on the N.C. Court of Appeals, was then named to serve in Martin’s seat until the election.
That shifted the balance in September to five Republicans and two Democrats. There have been few cases decided since then that reflect what that shift might mean for politically charged lawsuits.
Three of the four seats on the ballot are held by Democrats. And two registered Republicans are seeking the chief justice seat.
Chief justice seat
• Mark Martin, 51, a Republican from Apex. He served as an associate justice for 18 years until McCrory promoted him to chief justice.
• Ola M. Lewis, 49, a senior resident N.C. Superior Court judge in Brunswick County who lists her party affiliation as Republican. She said she entered the race because she thought state Republican leaders had engaged in “political gamesmanship” in selecting candidates to seek seats. As an African-American woman, she also said she thought she could make the high court bench more diverse.
Robin Hudson seat
• Robin Hudson, 62, a Democrat and incumbent N.C. Supreme Court justice seeking a second term. She survived what many described as a blistering and distorting attack ad in the May primary campaign paid for by 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. Hudson emerged from the primary as the lead vote-getter.
• Eric Levinson, 47, a Superior Court judge from Cornelius and one of two Republicans who challenged Hudson in the primary election. He has distanced himself from the TV ad but describes himself as a “Constitutional Conservative who is faithfully committed to the rule of law and a deliberative court process that respects the interests and concerns of all persons who come into the courtroom.”
Cheri Beasley seat
• Cheri Beasley, 48, a Democrat and state Supreme Court justice since 2012. She previously served on the N.C. Court of Appeals for four years and as a Cumberland County district court judge for 10 years before that.
• Mike Robinson, 59, a Republican and attorney in private practice in Winston-Salem who has campaigned on a platform that he would bring a business perspective to the high court.
• Sam Ervin, 58, an N.C. Court of Appeals member since 2009 and the Democratic candidate who ran a failed bid in 2012 against incumbent Justice Paul Newby.
• Robert N. Hunter Jr., 67, a Republican who was appointed to the N.C. Supreme Court in September after serving for eight years on the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited spending by outside groups in elections in the Citizens United case, partisan interest groups have collected lots of money to advocate for their candidates.
In 2012, outside groups funneled about $2.3 million into North Carolina to help Newby push back a challenge from Ervin. The money paid for a TV ad featuring a banjo-strumming narrator singing about Newby being a “tough” prosecutor of whom “criminals best beware.”
Last year, the legislature repealed the public financing program for judicial elections, just as many conservative organizations were turning their fight toward the judiciary.
In the spring, The Washington Post quoted Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, as saying: “Republicans have had a significant amount of success at the state level, not only being elected to offices but implementing bold conservative solutions. Unfortunately, that’s running into a hard stop with judges who aren’t in touch with the public.”
Walter announced the creation of the Judicial Fairness Initiative, a project aimed at backing judge candidates with conservative ideologies. He said North Carolina was a state on the target list.
Justice At Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice released a report this week stating that political parties, outside groups and state Supreme Court candidates across the nation had spent more than $9.1 million on TV ads during this election cycle.
Half and half
In North Carolina, according to their report, a total of $4 million has been funneled to the candidates and their races. Nearly $1.7 million of this has been spent on TV ads, with nearly half going to Republicans and half going to Democrats. Many ads were booked jointly by two candidates or by ad agencies representing several people.
Martin, the chief justice, said advertisements are necessary in a race where polls show voters are largely undecided about who they plan to vote for.
Advocates of abandoning the current judicial system and appointing judges instead of electing them contend that voters can glean little of importance from ads.
“We’re going to make these decisions based on these wild advertisements; that’s crazy,” said Catharine Arrowood, president of the North Carolina Bar Association.
The political parties have developed slates for voters to consider. The Republican Party has endorsed Martin, Hunter, Levinson and Robinson as “conservative judges,” and the Democratic Party has included Beasley, Hudson and Ervin on its “fair judges” slate.
But as they are on the campaign trail, the judicial candidates rarely mention their party affiliations.