Campaign finance records show $1.3 million were spent on North Carolina’s sole Supreme Court primary this year. It’s a dubious state record that raises concerns over the impartiality of justices relying on big dollar donations to keep their seats.
$1.3 million for a down ballot, non-partisan primary race. It’s roughly 10 times the amount usually spent on a state Supreme Court primary. "North Carolina is in the process of joining a club of states that are getting used to high money judicial elections year after year," warns Bert Brandenberg, executive director of Justice At Stake, a watchdog group. "It's routine now to have a system where judges feel pressure to raise or attract big money, from organizations that then appear before them in court."
With more money in races, there’s more of a chance for a judge to have a conflict of interest, real or perceived.
Now, there is a procedure that could address this quite easily. Recusal, where a judge sits out a case. It’s something Billy Corriher and his colleagues have been looking into. Corriher works for the Center for American Progress, a left leaning group. He and his team used ethical standards suggested by the American Bar Association. They then graded all 50 states from A to F. "North Carolina unfortunately got an F in our test" says Corriher. In fact North Carolina scored just 35 out of 100 points. One major reason is the state has no set standard for a judge to recuse him or herself due to campaign contributions.
In California a justice “shall disqualify himself or herself” if a party before the court gave them a campaign contribution of $5000 or more. California scored 75, the highest grade in Corriher’s test.
In Georgia, judges are supposed to disqualify themselves in any proceeding in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned, by a fair-minded and impartial person based upon objective fact or reasonable inference.” Georgia scored a 70.
In North Carolina, it is solely up judges. They have full discretion. Corriher points to one instance in North Carolina involving donations from a national group called the Republican State Leadership Committee or RSLC. "In North Carolina the RSLC helped the state draw up their redistricting map after the 2010 census. They’ve developed a software program that allows for very fined tuned redistricting."
That map was challenged in court for violating the rights of minority voters. And then Corriher says, "While this lawsuit was pending the RSLC spent over a million dollars to elect Justice Newby to the North Carolina Supreme Court." Corriher says Newby has refused to recuse himself.
Much of the RSLC’s donations went to outside issue groups that ran adds supporting Newby or attacking his opponent.
The state code of judicial conduct does not include campaign donations as a reason for recusal.
Justice Newby did not respond to an interview request. But Justice Robin Hudson, who was the top vote getter in this year’s primary, did.
"I do worry about the perception that contributions made by people appearing before the court can give the wrong impression."
But, says Hudson, she doesn't believe contributions have swayed a judge yet in North Carolina. But Justice Hudson wouldn't be against changes to the rules. "If the state bar or the legislature or whomever saw fit to impose a more rigorous recusal structure on the judges, I wouldn’t have any problem with that."
The $1.3 million for this year’s judicial primary was for just one race. There will be four races on the ticket this fall. Which means we’re likely to see more spending records shattered and more questions about the impartiality of the state’s highest court.