Courts, Politics Are a Bad Mix
It has become clear that there's no way to fix North Carolina's judicial elections - unless you mean doing it the way one "fixes" a sporting event, by controlling its outcome through the liberal application of dirty money.
Our state seemed to come dangerously close to that meaning of the word in the recent race for the N.C. Supreme Court. Though early polls tended to favor Sam J. Ervin IV, his opponent, Paul Newby, ended up carrying the day after an onslaught of advertisements financed through the infusion of more than $2.5 million from murky out-of-state groups seeking to influence the outcome.
Spending that much money - mostly outside money - on one state judicial race seems obscenely wrong. It threatens to bring the independence and integrity of the entire judicial system under doubt.
An Ironic Outcome
Ironically, the ground rules under which this election took place grew out of another court election that gave rise to another set of grave concerns a dozen years ago. That was in 2000 - when Chief Justice Henry Frye, a Democrat, spent the then-unimaginable total of $907,000 to defend his seat against a Republican challenger, I. Beverly Lake, who spent "only" $233,000.
Both candidates financed their campaigns with money raised from lawyers (who might well turn around and argue cases before them), from political action committees - and from their political parties, both of which became heavily involved.
The unsavory nature of that 2000 race lent new momentum to a reform campaign that had been percolating for some time. The resultant reform eliminated party labels from judicial campaigns and set up a system of public financing.
This time around, it was under that system that Newby and Ervin ran without overt party labels, both accepting $240,000 in public financing. By so doing, they agreed to raise no more than $80,000 apiece in outside funding.
Opening the Floodgates
In the real world, of course, the "nonpartisan" fig leaf hasn't kept people from knowing which party judicial candidates belong to. In this case, Ervin is a Democrat, Newby a Republican.
More important, the reformers of 2000 could hardly have envisioned the mischievous effects that would flow from Citizens United, the disastrous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared corporations to be "people" and opened the floodgates of anonymous and unaccountable outside cash into political campaigns.
So why would out-of-state forces care who won a normally obscure post on one of 50 state supreme courts - and not even the chief justice's position at that? The answer: Republican forces, knowing Newby to be one of their own, thought it worth a lot of money to boost his chances of helping preserve a GOP-sympathetic majority on the court when it hears a case challenging the legality of the heavily partisan set of congressional districts drawn up by the Republican-dominated General Assembly.
This all stinks. Judges are supposed to be chosen on their merits, not on the promise or probability that they will vote a certain way on future cases.
Making judgeships theoretically nonpartisan has not solved the problem. North Carolina needs a system under which the governor appoints judges from among nominees recommended by a bipartisan commission, with the people given periodic yes-or-no votes on retaining them.
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