Politics & Government
8:47 am
Fri May 2, 2014

The TV Ad That’s Rattling The Campaign For NC Supreme Court

Eric Levinson, Jeanette Doran, Robin Hudson
Credit Campaign photos

North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race isn’t the only one attracting lots of campaign money ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

Incumbent Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson is facing two challengers. She also faces more than a half-million dollars in negative advertisements from out-of-state funders.

Some say money is changing the non-partisan tone of court races in North Carolina. In this race, people are talking about one particular television ad that concludes with:  

“Justice Robin Hudson. Not tough on child molesters. Not fair to victims.”

The reaction from retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhoda Billings: “It’s unacceptable.”

Retired Justice Robert Orr: “Unfortunate.”

And retired Justice Phil Carlton: “Disgusting.” 

Candidates for the judgeship generally stay out of political mud wrestling and campaign on their qualifications. But the independent Justice For All NC has spent more than $500,000 to air ads attacking incumbent Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson.

The retired justices say the ad singles out one case and then oversimplifies it.

In 2010, the state Supreme Court heard a case over a law requiring electronic monitoring of child molesters. Hudson sided with the minority, writing that it was unconstitutional to apply a law to people convicted before it was passed. She also said it didn’t do enough to protect children.

A political action committee has spent more than $500,000 to air this ad. But the source of the money is not fully clear, says retired Justice Phil Carlton.

“North Carolina has now very painfully and very plainly been targeted by the outside, very conservative members of the business community that want to take over all state judiciaries. Robin just happens to be next in line,” Carlton says.

Candidates’ Credentials

Big out-of-state money is a relatively new phenomenon in state court races. Judge candidates generally stay out of political mud wrestling and campaign on their qualifications.

“People really want to know comparisons between my experience and my opponents,”  Hudson says.

Hudson says she’s the candidate with the best experience. She worked in private practice for 24 years, was on the state Court of Appeals for six years, and has been on the Supreme Court for seven.

“And I think that’s important for people to know,” Hudson says. “Most people that I talked to around the state, whether they’re lawyers or not, really believe that the people that are on the highest court in the state really ought to know what they’re doing, that it’s not a place for on-the-job training.”

Eric Levinson says he’s the candidate with the most experience as a judge. He served in District and Family Court in Charlotte, on the state Court of Appeals, and was named by then-President Bush to help create a court system in Iraq. He’s now a Superior Court Judge.

“I’m the candidate who’s been a judge in the trial court rooms of North Carolina and in the appellate courts,” Levinson says. “I’m the only candidate who’s presided in a trial court room over our most serious criminal cases and our most complex civil disputes.”

The third candidate is Raleigh attorney Jeanette Doran. She’s directed a conservative institute that challenges some state laws. She currently chairs a state board that hears appeals for unemployment benefits. She could not be reached for comment.

A Change In Campaigning And In The Courts?

The candidates stick closely to their resumes, and say little about their personal opinions. Bert Brandenburg is the director of the non-profit Justice At Stake, which tracks spending in judicial races across the country.

“A lot of judges and judicial candidates feel trapped in a system they did not sign up for,” Brandenburg says.

Brandenburg says spending jumped after the US Supreme Court Citizens United ruling. It removed restrictions on corporate money in politics. The dynamics also changed after the North Carolina General Assembly eliminated state funding for judicial races last year.

So, Brandenburg says, we should expect more outside cash.

“This is probably just the tip of the spear in terms of the amount of money that the judges will see around them on the campaign trail,” Brandenburg says.

In November, four of the seven seats in the North Carolina Supreme Court will be on the ballot. The winners will then take an oath to be fair and impartial.

CORRECTION (May 2, 3:40 p.m.): Bert Brandenburg's name was misspelled in the original version of this post. It has been corrected.