Special interest money in North Carolina's judicial races is not a new thing. But it may take a giant leap forward (backwards?) this year in a race for a seat on the state's Supreme Court. That raises an unsettling question: How independent can a judge truly be if he owes his election to hundreds of thousands of dollars from a small handful of donors?
We might soon find out. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby is running for reelection against Court of Appeals Judge Sam "Jimmy" Ervin IV. The race is technically nonpartisan, but Newby is a Republican and Ervin a Democrat. It's the only high court race on the ballot, and so the outcome will dictate the balance of the court - 4-3 right-leaning or 4-3 left-leaning. A number of controversial laws passed by the Republican-led legislature could make their way to the court's docket before long.
All of which explains why a group of wealthy conservatives have created a super PAC to funnel unlimited amounts of money toward reelecting Newby.
Ervin and Newby had each raised about $82,000 as of last week and both have qualified for about $240,000 in public financing.
Until recently, the infusion of cash on Newby's behalf would have sparked more public money for Ervin to narrow the gap. But a federal district court in North Carolina last month struck down that law, citing a 2011 Supreme Court ruling. So Ervin's backers now may have to create their own super PAC funded by wealthy liberals to compete with Newby. Lets the arms race begin.
Regardless of who wins, the special interest money that funded their campaign could start to crack their impartiality on the bench - or at least create the impression that it has.
Money's stain on judicial independence has been evident in other states. Remember the West Virginia case in which a businessman with a case before the court spent millions getting a justice elected? That justice then refused to recuse himself and voted with the 3-2 majority to overturn a $50 million verdict that had been rendered against his campaign backer.
Any system will have its flaws because it needs to balance competing objectives - independence vs. accountability. One method that strikes that balance: Judges are appointed by the governor or a bipartisan commission to fill a vacancy, then face one open election a couple of years later, then face periodic retention elections.
It sure beats just selling it to the highest bidder.
The Charlotte Observer