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'Super PAC' Could Shape the Race for N.C. Supreme Court
By Brent Laurenz
Published: Aug 13, 2012
RALEIGH - Voters in North Carolina are already seeing a deluge of television advertising from presidential candidates and the associated outside interests that support them. Many of these ads are coming from so-called super PACs -- outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums to attack one candidate or the other.
We can argue if these ads are good or bad for the democratic system, but at least candidates for president are running for a political position with a clear agenda.
However, this should not be the case for judicial candidates in North Carolina. Judges are supposed to be the umpires of the political system, calling the balls and strikes as neutral observers with no vested interest in the outcome. To acknowledge this unique role, judges for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are elected without partisan labels. So when you go into the polling place, you won’t find an “R” or a “D” next to these candidates, because they are supposed to be above the political fray.
To further acknowledge this independence, we use a system of public campaign financing so that candidates for the judiciary don’t have to raise and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, from people or groups that might have an issue before the court. All of this could change in 2012 with the formation of the first judicial super PAC in North Carolina.
The super PAC has been created to advocate for the reelection of Justice Paul Newby. The PAC, called the North Carolina Judicial Coalition, has not been visibly active yet. But odds are supporters of the challenger, current N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV, grandson of the former U.S. senator, are busy trying to form their own super PAC in response.
The introduction of judicial PACs is troubling because it threatens the independence of the court and runs counter to the current system we have in place to elect judges. Of course, the PAC and the campaign cannot legally coordinate, but an influx of outside cash and negative ads are precisely the things our judicial election system is set up to avoid.
The goal is to elect judges on their respective merits, without the influence of grainy attack ads accusing one or the other of hating puppies or apple pie as we often see when outside groups with unlimited money get involved.
Voters in Iowa saw this in 2010 when outside interests spent heavily to defeat three incumbent Supreme Court justices. Thus far, we have avoided that in North Carolina and you could argue our judiciary is better because of it. Our state, indeed our nation as a whole, places a high value on the idea of judicial independence and voters should rightly be concerned when outside groups attempt to interfere with the process.
Yes, it is possible the super PAC supporting Justice Newby could be 100 percent positive and only discuss the qualifications of Newby and his record on the bench, but there’s no guarantee of that. These races are often under the radar for most voters and it’s easy to conceive that in a close, low-information election, come October the super PAC could unleash a barrage of negative attacks on Ervin in a final attempt to sway the election to Justice Newby. For the sake of the voters and our judiciary, let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Electing judges will always be a more complicated affair than electing legislators or executives, but here in North Carolina we have a good system designed to maintain the integrity and independence of the bench. Quite frankly, we don’t need any outside interference.