In seven weeks, North Carolinians will go to the polls for the state primary elections. This means candidates for all kinds of offices are out wooing voters and raising money. For those trying to become elected judges - the process is a bit strange. And even the candidates worry it may hurt the credibility of the state’s highest courts.
Normally, if you walk into a room with a panel of judges, you’re chest high in legal troubles. But on a recent Wednesdays in Charlotte, five judges weren’t there to hear arguments or render verdicts. They were there to make their case to some 90 Charlotteans over lunch.
Welcome to the awkward world of judges stumping for votes and money.
Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson went first because she needs both right away. She is the only incumbent judge in the state facing a primary. "So we have to scramble and get the word out to people," She then asked the crowd to help by telling everyone they knew to vote.
Telling folks to spread the word is key in these stump speeches. As is being memorable. Some tell jokes. Others fall back on the quirks of who filed. Judge Lucy Inman tells folks she'll be easy to spot. "You can look for Lucy on the ballot. I’m the only Lucy there in November."
Inman is running for the state court of appeals.
But all judicial candidates face a similar challenge when voters finally go to the polls. Judicial races are considered non-partisan, which puts them well down the ballot. Which means people often turn in their ballot before marking their choice for judges. "The number of people who vote in judicial races are lower than the number of voters who vote in other races," Says Sam Irvin who is running for State Supreme Court, "Some of the reason for that is that voters look at that and say who are these people?"
Which leads us to another problem for Judicial candidates. The easiest way for politicians to get votes is to promise something; I’ll vote for a bill, or vote against it, or repeal it. I’ll protect the little guy, create jobs or make the state more business friendly.
For judges, well, Robin Hudson says promises aren't allowed. "I cant talk about what I’m going to do. I’m actually prohibited specifically by the code of judicial conduct from promising to run a certain way on a case. That’s one thing we cannot do."
It’s hard for these candidates to define their candidacy beyond pointing to their years of experience and their pledge to be fair, impartial, honest.
It’s far easier for groups to attack their character or question prior rulings that may be taken out of context. This is a tactic used by groups on both sides of the political isle, through 501c3 and c4’s, political action committees and SuperPACs.
The need to defend against these ads means judicial candidates have to raise money for their own ads and counter ads. And it’s a lot of money. Cheri Beasley is a state supreme court justice. She’s running for re-election. And her consultants say she'll need to raise between 1.2 and 2 million dollars just to be competitive. Beasley finds that outrageous. "We want judges that are focusing on doing their jobs and not focusing on being politicians."
Beasley says she’s on the road four to five days a week. When not in court Beasley is reading briefs and writing opinions in the early morning or late at night because her regular business hours are filled up with one fundraising call after another. "And the one thing that’s abundantly clear when I make these phone calls is people don’t want justice for sale. They want judges who are going to be fair and impartial and they don’t want money in the equation to affect cases that are really important to North Carolina."
But all this is necessary in part because the state did away with public financing for judicial candidates last year. And because of the abundance of outside groups with deep pockets and sometimes secret donor lists. So now every dime these judges need to get elected or re-elected must be raised directly. It’s a process that is awkward at best. At worst, justice Beasley worries it will influence how the public perceives the highest court in the state. " I think once the people of North Carolina understand that’s the system judges operate under, they really are quite offended."
Still, this is what it takes to be an elected judge in North Carolina.