From todays New & Record (11/01/06):

An independent political organization called FairJudges.Net began airing the ad this week. By promoting four Supreme Court candidates, it upsets a system meant to create a level playing field in judicial contests. Watchdog groups are up in arms.

“Democracy North Carolina believes the activities of FairJudges.Net are a disturbing and unhealthy development for judicial elections in North Carolina,” director Bob Hall said.

The N.C. Center for Voter Education called on “those responsible to stop airing these advertisements,” executive director Chris Heagarty said.

Even a beneficiary, Chief Justice Sarah Parker, wasn’t pleased. “If I had my druthers, I’d prefer to run my own campaign and plan my own strategy without unsolicited help from outside parties,” she said. “It would suit me fine if the ads did not run.”

The ad promotes “fair judges,” naming Parker, Mark Martin, Patricia Timmons-Goodson and Robin Hudson.

Judge Calabria is so far the only judge to respond to my email on the possible deceptive campaigning practices over at Morehead Planetarium.

The injection of big money in judicial races is a concern – that’s why NC switched to “voter-owned” judicial elections (at least for some judicial positions).

The complaint puts a major test on the state’s public financing system, adopted two years ago and touted as a way to remove partisan and big money influence from the courts.

Participants in public financing are allowed to raise a maximum of about $70,000 in contributions. The state then chips in, giving candidates for Court of Appeals about $144,000 and Supreme Court chief justice hopefuls about $217,000.

WRAL5, 11/01/06

The end-run, legal though it may be, around these limits is troubling – something acknowledged by the chair of the organization former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell:

FairJudges.Net, chaired by former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, says its mission is to provide “positive, accurate, bipartisan information about judges.”

That isn’t how Levinson sees it. In asking the state for additional funds, he protested that 527 spending bypasses “public financing restrictions and guidelines …”

He’s right. The playing field has tilted. This also pushes judicial politics into a potentially troubling realm, where special-interest groups can spend millions to sway voters.

In West Virginia two years ago, a 527 group funded with more than $2 million from a coal company executive helped defeat a Supreme Court justice. It prompted the legislature to enact tougher restrictions. North Carolina might have to do the same, at least barring 527s from pouring money into last-minute ad campaigns.

Mitchell conceded Wednesday that “527s generally should be of concern to people” but defended the ad as “nothing but positive.”

It may be, but the prospect of big-money, special-interest influence in judicial elections should raise a hue and cry every time.

N&R, 11/02/06

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