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Ervin to Run Again for N.C. Court; High-Spending Contest Likely

Judge Sam Ervin, defeated last year by incumbent Justice Paul Newby for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court, will run again in 2014. Pundits are predicting a high-spending election, given recent history, the fact that four of the court’s seven seats are expected to be on the ballot, and changes to state laws.

Last year’s contest marked the most expensive judicial campaign in North Carolina history, according to a report, as outside groups pumped at least $2 million into spending for advertising. Ervin remarked in an announcement statement that he’s choosing to counter the big spending and concerns it may raise by running again.

“I am running because I believe the future of the courts is at stake,” Ervin said, according to the Associated Press. “I believe North Carolinians deserve fair, impartial, and independent justices who are beholden to no one and have no agenda except to follow the law.”

At the Greensboro News & Record, Doug Clark blogged that left to their own devices, Ervin and announced opponent Robert N. Hunter Jr., who like Ervin  sits on the N.C. Court of Appeals, would probably run a “gentlemanly” race. ”

“But partisan interests will probably fight hard over the seat,” Clark added, “which means, unfortunately, that a lot of money will be spent to politicize the contest.” He also noted that, as Ervin pointed out in his announcement remarks, the legislature eliminated public financing for judicial campaigns and raised limits on contributions to judicial campaigns from $1,000 to $5,000 per election.

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Big-Spending ‘Extravaganza’ in N.C. Court Election Next Year?

When four seats on the seven-member North Carolina Supreme Court come up for election in 2014, a high-spending, multiple-candidate election may unfold.

“[A]lready Republican candidates for the 2014 high court elections are gearing up for what might be an extravaganza — more candidates and lots more money, particularly if Gov. Pat McCrory signs into law proposals passed by the General Assembly [to] unleash campaign fundraising,” Sharon McCloskey wrote on Monday in the Progressive Pulse, a publication of North Carolina Policy Watch. On that day, McCrory signed the legislation.

As proof that Republicans may go gung-ho to keep or expand a 4-3 majority on the court, McCloskey cites a memo by a Republican consultant entitled, “How the North Carolina Republican Party Can Maintain Political Power for 114 Years.” The memo’s Rule #5 admonishes, “Lose the courts, lose the war.”

The election reform law that McCrory signed into law eliminates public financing for judicial elections, as Gavel Grab has mentioned earlier. It also raises a ceiling on the donations an individual can give to a candidate from $4,000 to $5,000 per election cycle and cuts back on campaign finance disclosure requirements. Read more

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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law an election reform bill with numerous controversial provisions including repeal of the public financing of judicial elections, a program that the state pioneered with significant success. A Slate blog post reported on the legislation’s many facets.
  • Former Kentucky Judge Martin McDonald, reprimanded by the state Judicial Conduct Commission for “egregious” misconduct, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the commission was made up of “clowns who can’t figure out they don’t have any authority over me. I’m retired. I’m done.”
  • At The Atlantic Online, Garrett Epps wrote an essay entitled, “Does the Chief Justice Have Too Much Power? John Roberts appointed every judge on the secretive and influential FISA court. Maybe it’s time to spread around the authority.”
  • A new rule adopted by Delaware state courts, responding to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, means most indigent prisoners will be entitled to a taxpayer-funded lawyer for a post-conviction appeal, costing in the millions of dollars, a News Journal article said.

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Commentary: Sifting Through Numerous Acts of N.C. Legislature

Fair courts in North Carolina are facing challenges from multiple directions as a result of action in this year’s legislature.

Gavel Grab has reported extensively about the legislature’s elimination of a public financing program for judicial elections. Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress says in a ThinkProgress blog post that there’s more: the legislature voted to cut back on campaign finance disclosure requirements. He reports about an election changes bill approved by the legislature:

“The bill also eliminates a corporate independent spending disclosure rule and a requirement that independent spenders running ads from May to September of an election year must disclose their donors.”

Corriher also touches on changes judicial discipline procedures that the legislature approved. (The North Carolina Bar Association has urged a veto by Gov. Pat McCrory.) Corriher says the changes “will make the justices less accountable for violating rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest from undermining the integrity of the judiciary.” Read more

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Changes to N.C. Law Draw Widespread Attention, Spark Controversy

Across North Carolina, news still is getting out that the state legislature has made significant changes to judicial selection laws, including the death of public financing for judicial elections (see Gavel Grab), and has voted to revise rules for certain judicial disciplinary proceedings (background in Gavel Grab).

In the (Whiteville) News Reporter, a prominently displayed article reported on the changes this way:

“A public campaign financing program meant to limit special interest influence in judicial elections in the state met its death in the legislature during the final hours of the long session. … The change comes despite pleas by all but one judge on the state’s Court of Appeals.”

Whiteville has a population of just over 5,000 people and is home for the annual North Carolina Pecan Harvest Festival.

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Political Scientists Say Survey Backs Value of Public Financing

Public trust in fair and impartial courts is increased when there is “awareness that judges rely on public, not private, money” in their election bids, according to research cited by two political scientists at North Carolina State University.

In their (Raleigh) News & Observer commentary, Michael Cobb and James Zink discuss their public opinion research in lamenting the state legislature’s action this year to kill a pioneering state program for public financing of judicial elections.

When respondents were asked to read a fictitious news article about a state Supreme Court judge who cast the deciding vote in a controversial zoning law case, they were presented with varying versions. One gave no information about the judge’s campaign funding, one depicted him as relying on public financing and one portrayed him as relying on private campaign funding. Read more

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N.C. Legislators’ Attacks on Judicial Selection Laws are Questioned

Existing judicial selection laws continue to come under attack in North Carolina. The trend has led critics to question whether changes to the law would cause fair and impartial courts to become more susceptible to influence by special interests, or to a public perception of unfairness.

The legislature voted to give the governor more authority and let him appoint whomever he chooses for District Court judgeships, eliminating a requirement that such vacancies must be filled from lists of candidates chosen by the local bar (see Gavel Grab). Blogging in the  News & Record, Doug Clark wrote:

“Critics of the current system say, in effect, that you can’t trust lawyers to recommend judges. I don’t know about you, but I trust them come election time. I value the opinions of lawyers. Who is better informed about judges and potential judges?”

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NC Legislators Vote to Change Judicial Selection, Repeal Public Financing

North Carolina’s legislature keeps passing legislation to change the way judges are selected.

After legislators passed a budget bill last week that ends funding for public financing of appellate judicial elections, a pioneering reform to protect courts from special interest influence, the House gave final approval  to a major voting changes bill. It formally repeals the public financing law, according to a WRAL news report.

At Huffington Post, Adam Smith of Public Campaign wrote, “The repeal of a popular public financing program defies common sense, but it also defies the people who have actually used it. In June, 14 of the 15 members of the Court of Appeals urged the legislature to maintain the system.”

In addition, the Republican-controlled legislature voted separately to  give the governor more authority and let him appoint whomever he chooses for District Court judgeships, eliminating a requirement that such vacancies must be filled from lists of candidates chosen by the local bar. Read more

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Final Budget in N.C. Would Kill Public Financing Program

North Carolina’s legislature approved on Wednesday a $20.6 billion budget and sent it to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature. The final version, like initial versions passed in each chamber, would kill the state’s pioneering public financing program for judicial elections, according to The Voter Update, an online magazine of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.

Justice at Stake was among groups lending support to preserving the popular program. After both legislative chambers passed respective budget plans that would effectively kill the program, JAS Acting Executive Director Liz Seaton said:

“[T]he real losers will be North Carolina residents, who made it clear in a recent poll that they are disinclined to support legislators who favor a bigger role for money in judicial elections. Now the people face the loss of a clean-elections program that helped insulate their judges from the influence of moneyed special interests. The politicians who decided to eliminate this program are disregarding the will of the people they were elected to represent, as well as ignoring the potentially disastrous effects of large sums of private money that will inevitably flow into the state’s justice system.”

The N.C. Center for Voter Education is a JAS partner organization.

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Commentary: NC Legislature Makes ‘Hollow Shell’ of Public Financing

The looming “destruction” of North Carolina’s public financing program for judicial elections is one more unfortunate step taken by the state legislature this year to retreat from successful and progressive policies, editorial board member Dorothy Samuels writes in a New York Times blog.

Gavel Grab has chronicled budget versions passed by each chamber in the legislature that would effectively kill the pioneering and popular public financing program, aimed at protecting state courts from the influence of special interest spending. Samuels quotes Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice, a Justice at Stake partner group, as documenting the program’s impact:

“In 2002, the last year without public financing, 73 percent of campaign funds for judicial candidates came from attorneys and special interest groups,” Bannon wrote in a state newspaper op-ed.  “After public financing was introduced in 2004, that number dropped to 14 percent.  Last year, every single candidate for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals opted to receive public financing.” Read more

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