One of the most controversial special interest groups in North Carolina is back. The group is Justice For All NC. They are a conservative political action committee. They have a lot of cash and they very much want to influence your choice for North Carolina’s Supreme Court.
Justice For All NC went dark after this year’s primary. It sprang to life last week after receiving $425,000 in contributions from just two donors. The vast majority of that came courtesy of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group with deep pockets that claims to be the only national political organization focused on electing state judges across the country.
The money came just in time to make big ad buys right before next Tuesday’s election. Justice For All NC has no website. They issue no press releases. They don’t respond to the press. So their plans aren’t public. But they do upload their ads to YouTube.
And what’s been posted over the last few days indicates they’re likely to follow a strategy that served them well in 2012.
Step 1: Run a positive ad for a conservative candidate for State Supreme Court. You might remember that folksy 'banjo ad' supporting Paul Newby from 2012.
Yup, that was paid for by Justice For All NC. And if you don’t remember it don’t worry – you get the gist from their new ad.
The banjo has been replaced by an acoustic guitar but it has the same folksy feel, the same man singing, it even has the same "tough but fair" catch phrase. In short, Justice For All NC’s first step is a benign, even catchy positive ad for a conservative candidate. This time Mike Robinson.
As for step 2, well, that’s when this conservative group turns their sites on a liberal candidate…for a last minute negative ad blitz. Justice For All NC has just such an ad posted on YouTube as well. It, too, will sound familiar.
This ad is a slightly different version of one Justice For All NC ran attacking liberal Justice Robin Hudson during this year’s primary. A handful of words have been added, but the attack is identical, "Robin Hudson, not tough on child molesters. Not fair to victims."
"It was really intended to frighten voters to not vote for her," says Billy Corriher, who covers big money and judicial elections for the liberal leaning Center For American Progress. "It was really disturbing. Some local observers called it the most despicable ad that had ever been aired in North Carolina politics."
The ad was seen as so off the mark six former state Supreme Court Justices jumped to Hudson’s defense. As did the state bar association. Even Eric Levinson, one of those running against Hudson in the primary called the ad “unfair.” Levinson and Hudson are now running against each other in the general election.
On Wednesday, Justice Hudson tried to get ahead of the expected negative attacks. "We’re here because big political money is once again plotting to influence our important statewide judicial elections." Joining her were two other liberal candidates for state supreme court, Justice Cheri Beesley and Judge Sam Ervin. "Part of the thing voters need to recognize is that the timing is no accident. This thing appears to me to be handled in such a fashion as to maximize the difficulty for the other candidate in responding."
The General Assembly abolished public financing last year. Each of these candidates and their opponents have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. That alone can be seen as a problem. Especially since North Carolina law doesn’t force judges to recuse themselves from a case even if it involves a person, group or company that contributed to their campaign. That kind of conflict of interest is most likely to come before the court in a civil case.
But two new studies say big money in judicial elections is having an effect on criminal cases as well. "Once these attack ads aired," says Corriher, "judges know that any ruling in favor of a criminal defendant may be used against them in the future."
Billy Corriher from The Center For American Progress worked on one of the studies. "We looked at states that were seeing their first multi-million dollar judicial election." They added up all the cases that went for prosecutors and those that went for defendants. And over a 10 year period Corriher said the more big money is active in judicial races, the less likely judges will rule in favor of a defendant. "In Illinois for example, we saw a 16 or 17 percent increase in the rulings against criminal defendants between 2003 and 2004."
2004 was that state’s first big money judicial election. Corriher says, "It's really alarming when we see these kinds of correlations."
Take this story from Oliver Diaz, a former Justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court, speaking at a forum hosted by the Center For American Progress.
We actually had one justice decide that he was never going to overturn another criminal conviction while he sat on the court. I was appalled by the decision. He told me he was going to do that. And he actually did it.
Diaz has not said the name of the justice in question.
The Center For American Progress did not study North Carolina’s track record specifically. But Joanna Shepherd did. She is a professor of both law and economics at Emory University. Using the Citizens United case as a benchmark, because it was the case that allowed this big money to flow, Shepherd went through the criminal cases before the North Carolina Supreme Court. "We found that justices voted in favor of criminal defendants about 29 percent of the time." That was before Citizens United. Shepherd says after that case, "justices only voted in favor of criminal defendants 12 percent of the time." A decrease of 17 percent.
Shepherd's research was funded by the left leaning American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. She believes there are two possible reasons for this. One, the ads may be making justices think twice. Or two, attack ads in judicial races are changing which judges are elected in the first place.