Conservatives spending heavily on court race

Posted October 30, 2012
Updated October 31, 2012

— Groups with a stake in medical malpractice law changes, legislative redistricting, workers compensation rules and other issues contentious civil issues are spending more than $1.6 million to make sure you know Paul Newby is a "tough ol' judge" dedicated to putting criminals away. 

Forget the fact that the Supreme Court doesn't deal directly with putting criminals in prison and Newby's resume suggests much more experience with civil matters than criminal law. Those bankrolling the ad just want voters humming "Paul Newby, justice tough but fair" when they fill out their ballots.

Newby, an incumbent state Supreme Court justice, is running for re-election against Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV. Although the race is putatively nonpartisan, it is widely known that Newby is a Republican and Ervin is a Democrat. The race will determine whether Republicans continue to hold a 4-3 majority on the court or whether an Ervin victory would swing the majority in favor of Democrats. 

Both Newby and Ervin raised and spent a little more than $300,000 through North Carolina's public judicial campaign finance system. Each has staked a claim to election based on qualifications and biography. 

But the $337,466.80 Newby has reported spending on his campaign is dwarfed by outside spending on his behalf.

To be fair, Ervin will have some outside spending come in on his behalf. A group known as N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools will likely spend more than $200,000 on direct mail fliers bolstering Ervin, according to those familiar with the expenditure. That money will come mainly from teachers groups, which have pushed the state to spend more on public education and have challenged a state law that kept teachers from donating directly to their association through paycheck contributions. 

And it is worth noting that independent expenditures are nothing new. Democrats and their allies spent heavily on behalf of judges in prior elections.

But Republican groups and conservative nonprofits backing Newby could end up spending 10 times as much, or more, as their opponents by the time the election is over this year.

For example, Americans for Prosperity, a national conservative group funded by wealthy donors like retail magnate and former North Carolina lawmaker Art Pope, said Friday it will spend $225,000 on a flier backing Newby. That pushes the total amount of outside spending on Newby's behalf beyond the $2 million mark.

But the bulk of outside spending in the race has come through the North Carolina Judicial Coalition, an independent spending group run by former Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer. That group has bought at least $1.6 million in air time for the "banjo ad," according to its campaign finance reports, although reports  submitted by television stations to the Federal Communications Commission suggest that total amount could be somewhat higher. 

Of the money that came to Fetzer's group, at least $720,000 was funneled through Justice for All NC, separate outside expenditure group. Those familiar with the two groups say they were set up separately at about the same time with the same purpose in mind – backing Newby's re-election bid. 

Former North Carolina Attorney General Lacy Thornburg, who went on to serve on the federal bench, wrote that he was "troubled" by the influx of money into state judicial campaigns.  

"I am hopeful that our citizens and the media will pay attention to what is going on here, investigate the situation and ask several key questions:  Who is giving the money? How much are they giving? What do they expect in return?" Thornburg wrote in a letter widely disseminated by Ervin. 

At the time he wrote, the campaign donations in question were cloaked by a complex web of campaign finance rules. Campaigns reports filed this week clear up some of Thornburg's questions. 

The list of donors to the two groups includes some smaller-dollar donations from individuals. But there are several five- and six-figure donations from businesses, nonprofits and others with an interest in state policy which either has been or might be before the court. For example: 

  • The Republican State Leadership Committee donated $560,000 to Justice for All. The committee is a national Republican operation interested in keeping GOP lawmakers in power. A case challenging the legislative districts drawn by Republican lawmakers in 2011 is working its way through the court system now. The RSLC itself has gotten backing from wealthy business interests, including some from North Carolina. 
  • Medical Mutual, a doctor-owned medical malpractice insurer gave $75,000 to Justice for All. A medical malpractice bill sponsored by Republican lawmakers would cap damages in certain cases and could be subject to legal challenges. 
  • The North Carolina Chamber gave $163,700 to Coalition for Justice. The chamber, the state's largest business alliance, has advocated for a number of bills that have worked their way through the General Assembly during past year, including laws that limited audits by local governments, lowered taxes and cut back on certain government regulations. 
  • Reynolds American donated $100,000 to Justice for All, and  R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company added $100,000 to the Judicial Coalition. Both are arms of the same tobacco company. Tobacco companies and their allies have fought a number of legislative battles over the past several years, including tussles over taxes and whether state smoking restrictions are constitutional.
  • The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians gave $10,000 to Justice for All. The tribe recently signed a new tribal compact with the state government that allowed for live dealers at their casino. At the same time, the court is hearing a pair of cases dealing with sweepstakes gambling that has sprung up across the state. 

Fetzer declined to comment on his group's fundraising and spending. Jeff Hyde, a board member with Justice for All, referred questions to Bob Rosser, a contract communications specialist who did not return a phone call to his office. 

In background conversations, other Republicans will say they see the keeping a GOP majority on the court as a way to protect Republican legislative victories from being overturned. 

As for groups that funded the two spending groups, many did not return phone calls by the time this story was finished. 

In response to a request for comment, Gary Salamido, who runs the North Carolina Chamber's independent expenditure committee, sent an email through a spokeswoman. 

“The Chamber IE Committee supports candidates for elective office who are, based on their record and stated position on key business issues, aligned with the position of North Carolina Chamber members,” Salamido wrote. 

Although independent expenditures are legal, they raise questions in the minds of good government advocates and others.

“As spending on judicial races continues to increase, judges face added pressure to be accountable to special interests instead of the law and the constitution,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said last week. The Brennan Center had identified the state Supreme Court race in North Carolina as the fourth most expensive in the nation at that point, but that was before campaign finance reports released Monday and Tuesday.

"The important thing here is transparency," said Jane Pinksy, director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. Because voters are able to know who is backing a judge, she said, they can make their own decisions on whom to vote for.

Others argue that voters typically know very little about judicial candidates, so more information – even if it comes by way of a commercial funded by corporations with interests before the court – is helpful.

"For voters to be informed, they need to know more about the candidates, not less," said Scott Gaylord, a law professor at Elon University. Like Pinsky, he argued that disclosure requirements would allow voters to make their own decision about the independence of judges. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "extreme" spending in some cases can so color a judge's decision that it's impossible for him to rule impartially. In that case, one donor spent millions to help one judge get elected. 

However, the court did not draw a line saying when campaign donations become problematic. 

"Recusal is typically left to the judge," Gaylord said. 

For his part, Newby says he finds the ads on his behalf humorous, if not substantial. 

"I've got no control over any of these independent groups," Newby said during a phone interview Monday. 

Newby said he only wants to apply the law as its written and isn't affected one way or the other by those backing him.

"If someone were to believe that I would do something other than that, they are mistaken," he said.

Ervin said that the outside spending is troubling no matter which candidate groups are backing. What happens, he asks, when the public sees a case that involves someone who donated heavily to an independent expenditure effort on behalf of a judge?

"The real issue is how the general public is going to treat that decision," he said. 


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • beachboater Oct 31, 2012

    Unfortunately, I don't know a lot about the judicial candidates. The judicial races are always hard to decide on.

    If Newby is a constitutionalist, I'm for him. Too many, including our current president, are trying to tear the constitution up and throw it away. The framers of the constitution were incredible forward thinkers.

    Can you imagine how they were able to create such a document that would withstand mostly intact for over 200 years? They were some super smart guys.

  • dixieboy Oct 31, 2012

    A few more days...

  • dontstopnow Oct 31, 2012

    These political stories are getting BORING. Hasn't there been enough news lately that trumps this sort of story and really who cares? Most have already voted so this sort of story is lame.

  • Damien Thorne Oct 31, 2012

    "Indeed......but if their opinions didn't matter we wouldn't need then at all."

    "LOL I do so love irony......"

    "What like Corporations being "people", that sort of thing? :)"

    "And ignorant "natural born" citizens can do likewise......I suggest Mississippi."---Grand Union

    Wow, such insight. I bet you have people writing up these ingenious replies don't you. These are far to clever to be your own.

  • btneast Oct 31, 2012

    It should say "corporate masters and rich and powerful fat cats" spending heavily on Newby.

    Oh puleeeeeze. What a tired and worn out , not to mention inaccurate, phrase. Corporations are made up of stockholders. If you have an IRA, you are likley a stockholder. Most retired scholteachers and other public servants retirements are funded through their stock holdings in these "evil" corporations. Are there some stupid companies out there that do some reprehensible stuff, sure. There are far more companies that are responsible and care about what future they are heading toward. Are you still stuck in a 60's college classroom?

  • kodac31 Oct 31, 2012

    WRAL--Why is it you failed to mention that PAUL NEWBY is the ONLY candidate in this race that has been publicly endorsed by BOTH Democrat & Republican Prior Chief Justices of the NC Supreme Court?!? That alone speaks volumes! Newby is vastly more experienced! He has served 8 years on the NC Supreme Court, & prior to that he served 20+ years as a tough Federal Prosecutor in North Carolina. Sam Ervin is pulling the old 'political expediency' game. Ervin hasn't even completed HALF of his first term as a NC Judge & yet already trying to jump on the Supreme Court again trying to use his Father's name. Ervin's onlu prior experience is serving on the NC Utilities Commission! The choice is clear-Newby has the overwhleming support of Democrats & Republicans b/c he is a proven excellent Judge! Newby has never allowed politics to sway his votes. He is a strict constructionist who believes in ruling on & appying the law as writen by the legislator. Newby is the best choice & has EARNED re-election

  • davidgnews Oct 31, 2012

    Nothing like the intellectual appeal of a hillbilly commercial.

  • Grand Union Oct 31, 2012

    'We need judges that are not ignorant and understand that they interpret the law, not legislate from the bench."

    Indeed......but if their opinions didn't matter we wouldn't need then at all.

    " This shows the complete disdain for the law on the left, they know their agenda is nothing but ignorance and hate"

    LOL I do so love irony......

    " and the only way to get it into law is to have judges that base their judgements on other than our constitution and legal precedent."

    What like Corporations being "people", that sort of thing? :)

    " Ignorant immigrants that do not like it are welcome to leave."

    And ignorant "natural born" citizens can do likewise......I suggest Mississippi.

  • Grand Union Oct 31, 2012

    "It seems to me that this is a binary issue, either outside spending should be allowed or it shouldn't."

    or perhaps it should be regulated.....

  • myersm1 Oct 31, 2012

    It seems to me that this is a binary issue, either outside spending should be allowed or it shouldn't. Currently the law allows it and both sides obviously support their candidates, no surprise. The candidates have no say in this and for either side to imply a lack of integrity or criticize the other for the outside support while also receiving it would seem disingenuous and hypocritical. This article focuses more on the details of Republican backed support but I imagine it could if desired find as many details past or present regarding Democratic support as well.

    At the end of the day, I believe concerns about money such as this boil down to the character of the person in the race. I have know Justice Newby personally for about 15 years and have nothing but the utmost respect for him. His character is without doubt beyond question and he will apply the law and Constitution as written without regard for any other factors as evidenced by his past service and record on the court.