Partisanship In the High Court Race
Sometimes it is better to listen to the known partisans and take with a grain of salt the utterances of those staid, impartial folks in their robes of black.
One of those partisans, former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer, recently told WRAL-TV that the motives of the North Carolina legislature were pretty clear when it decided to begin holding judicial elections without attaching party labels to candidates' names.
Fetzer said one of the reasons was because "Republicans started winning appellate court seats."
He was being nice. It was the chief reason.
North Carolinians saw Republicans as being tougher on crime, and the party affiliation listed beside a candidate's name had become the overwhelming criteria by which voters were selecting appellate court candidates.
A Democratic legislature wasn't happy with the result.
Of course, taking away the party label on the election ballot doesn't mean that party activists and contributors aren't aware of the candidates' party affiliation.
They have never been more aware of it than this year, when a single seat up for grabs on the state Supreme Court could swing the court from Republican to Democratic control.
Incumbent Justice Paul Newby faces Sam Ervin IV, a state Court of Appeals judge and the grandson of U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr. of Watergate fame. Newby just happens to be a Republican; Ervin just happens to be a Democrat.
To hear the two talk, those party affiliations don't matter.
Newby recently told a group that the race is about qualifications, and questioned why Democrats would want to run someone against an incumbent who has bipartisan support.
His comments were a bit different, a week earlier, when appearing before a partisan crowd alongside a Republican candidate for governor.
That Republican candidate for governor, Pat McCrory, made no bones about the desire to keep the court in GOP hands as he urged the crowd to vote for Newby.
Ervin also spoke about being neither a Republican nor a Democratic judge.
Just set aside his family's long Democratic pedigree and that he was appointed by Democratic governors to the state Utility Commission.
It is worth pointing out that most cases that come before the state Supreme Court have little to do with partisan politics. Typically, the issues considered aren't obviously conservative and liberal, Republican and Democratic. The decisions don't often come down along partisan lines.
And neither Newby nor Ervin carry Scalia-type reputations for being partisan.
Nonetheless, the money pouring into the race is and will continue to look partisan.
Fetzer is heading up a independent group, N.C. Judicial Coalition, that is backing Newby and likely getting its money from the usual deep-pocketed, Republican suspects.
So far, no Democratic-connected shadow campaign has claimed Ervin, but there is still time.
Finally, there is a little case before the Supreme Court that does have a partisan bent, and it has the attention of traditional donors.
It's the case that will determine whether legislative districts that provide advantage to Republicans will stand.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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