Under the Dome

N.C. Supreme Court race drove big spending

L to R: Supreme Court of North Carolina Justices Cheri Beasley, Robin Hudson, Robert Edmunds, Jr., new Chief Justice Mark Martin, Paul Newby, Barbara Jackson and Sam Ervin IV listen to the opening remarks of newly sworn in Chief Justice Mark Martin, center on Jan. 5, 2015, in Raleigh. Martin was appointed to fill the term of a retiring Chief Justice of NC, and won election recently to a full eight-year term of office.
L to R: Supreme Court of North Carolina Justices Cheri Beasley, Robin Hudson, Robert Edmunds, Jr., new Chief Justice Mark Martin, Paul Newby, Barbara Jackson and Sam Ervin IV listen to the opening remarks of newly sworn in Chief Justice Mark Martin, center on Jan. 5, 2015, in Raleigh. Martin was appointed to fill the term of a retiring Chief Justice of NC, and won election recently to a full eight-year term of office. hlynch@newsobserver.com

North Carolina was second in the nation for spending on judicial elections last year, driven by competition for four seats on the state Supreme Court.

The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice reported Thursday that the campaigns had more than $6 million in spending in the 2013-14 cycle. Nine candidates ran for four open seats and raised nearly $4 million in total.

The elections broke state candidate fundraising records. It was also the first N.C. Supreme Court election without public financing since 2002, after the state legislature eliminated it in 2013.

More than $2 million in outside spending by interest groups and political parties in the state put North Carolina third in non-candidate spending.

Melissa Price Kromm, executive director of the N.C. Voters for Clean Elections Coalition, which partnered with the Institute for Southern Studies to track the growth of spending in North Carolina’s 2014 judicial elections, said in a statement released with the study that the absence of public financing opened the door for special-interest money.

“These findings underscore the need for common-sense reforms, including greater transparency and restoring North Carolina’s effective judicial public financing program,” she said.

Other findings in the report:

▪ Candidates turned to lawyers and lobbyists, who donated more than 40 percent of total contributions.

▪ The Republican State Leadership Committee was the largest single source of contributions. It gave $1.3 million to the North Carolina group Justice for All NC, which spent $1.4 million on the Supreme Court contests. Justice for All NC ran a widely criticized TV ad accusing Justice Robin Hudson of being soft on child molesters. She was re-elected.

▪ The political arm of the N.C. Chamber and the N.C. Judicial Coalition also sponsored TV ads. North Carolina ranked second nationally for TV spending, with $1.3 million, and led the nation in the number of ad airings, at 10,903.

“The hard numbers make it clear: When judges have to run for election, there is a risk that the concerns of ordinary people will take a back seat to the special interests and politicians who are trying to reshape courts to fit their agendas," said Scott Greytak, the report’s lead author.

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