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A Mud-Free Election for N.C. Supreme Court

By Damon Circosta

RALEIGH - Court watchers around the nation are concerned that judicial elections have become yet another battlefield in a hyper-partisan competition for control of government.

Rather than being evaluated on the merits of their service, many judges are being targeted and turned out of office on the basis of a single decision -- often taken out of context. The concern is that judges will react by forsaking their role as protectors of the Constitution and instead become concerned with the popularity of their decisions.

Judges Barbara Jackson and Bob Hunter

N.C. Appeals Court Judges Barbara Jackson and Bob Hunter faced off for an open seat on the N.C. Supreme Court.

In contrast to the nasty court contests in other states, here in North Carolina we have been experimenting with an alternative that has removed much of the negative advertising, bitter tone and increasingly partisan warfare that plague those judicial elections.

In 2002, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Judicial Campaign Reform Act (JCRA). The legislation made judicial races officially nonpartisan, authorized a statewide voter guide to help inform citizens about judicial candidates and created a system of public financing that has shielded our courts from special-interest influence.

Over the four election cycles that JCRA has been in effect, we have seen a real change in the tone of our judicial elections. While lawyer money used to be the largest source of campaign contributions, it is no longer. Now, judges spend most of their time campaigning among voters at rallies and forums throughout the state, rather than chasing contributions. Our judges, conservative and liberal alike, run campaigns based on their qualifications -- not by bashing their opponent.

This year there was an open seat for the N.C. Supreme Court. Two experienced and capable N.C. Court of Appeals judges were running for it. Although these races are nonpartisan on the ballot, both the Democratic and Republican parties endorsed in the race and were hoping “their” candidate would help them tip the partisan balance of the court in their favor.

The stakes were especially high. Every 10 years the legislature must redraw legislative and congressional boundaries. It’s an ugly and contentious process that almost always results in litigation. The N.C. Supreme Court hears those cases and both major political parties want judges they perceive as sympathetic to their side on the bench.

In any other state we would have almost assuredly seen huge sums of money dumped into the race and that money would have funded relentless attack ads. As both candidates were sitting judges who have written literally thousands of court opinions, you can bet the ad-makers and political consultants would have cherry-picked one or two of these opinions for mischaracterization.

Yet the outside money and the attack machine never got off the ground here. Certainly some credit for this civility is due to the individual candidates, Bob Hunter and the winner of the seat, Barbara Jackson. Both ran classy campaigns.

But the public financing program kept the big money at bay. Outside spenders didn’t run attack ads and the public didn’t have to suffer through relentless negative commercials that only diminish confidence in our justice system.

Our judicial elections are by no means perfect. But compared to other states, we are doing remarkably well at avoiding some of the more detrimental campaigns that undermine the integrity of our courts. Following our lead, Wisconsin and West Virginia recently approved similar programs for their judicial elections.

Indeed, 2010 might eventually become known as “the year of big spending and negative campaigns” across the county, but here in North Carolina our judges bucked that trend. Instead, we saw that even in high-stakes races, candidates can wage vigorous, substantive campaigns without the mudslinging.

Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.