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The money is the problem

A story of interest from North Carolina.

BagOfMoney

The ad first appeared on television the Friday before last, a black-and-white spot charging that Justice Robin Hudson coddled child molesters and “sided with the predators” in a North Carolina Supreme Court dissent. It has run constantly since.

As notable as the ad’s content and frequency, though, is its source. It was created and aired not by one of Justice Hudson’s two opponents in Tuesday’s primary election, but by a group that had just received $650,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington, which pools donations from corporations and individuals to promote conservatives in state politics and is now broadening its scope to target judicial races.

The sums have been unusual for such elections. The primary race for Justice Hudson’s Supreme Court seat alone has drawn more than $1 million — the bulk of it by independent groups including the Republican committee and an arm of the state Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $250,000 to promote both of her opponents with money from companies including Reynolds American, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Koch Industries.

[...]

Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C., which is tracking spending and television ads, said, “The sitting justice could be primaried out because of this avalanche of independent spending on behalf of the two conservative candidates.”

Justice Hudson has raised a few hundred thousand dollars and spent $86,000 fielding a defensive ad. She has been spending long days attending breakfasts and barbecue benefits across the state’s 100 counties, seeking to build her name recognition and fire up supporters to vote in a primary where they may not see much at stake.

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Judges on higher courts are elected rather than appointed in 22 states, and in 16 more they must face retention elections at some point after their selection, according to Justice at Stake, an advocacy group in Washington. Corporations and political parties — and trial lawyers and unions — seek ideologically compatible state judges, legal experts say, because their rulings can affect redistricting and laws on such key issues as liability, medical malpractice and workers’ compensation.

The growing influx of interest group spending is transforming judicial elections and raising concerns about conflicts of interest. In 2012, $30 million was spent nationwide on television advertising for state court races, often involving attack ads, according to a report last fall by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

“Judicial races are getting swamped in this tidal wave of political money,” said Bert Brandenburg, a former Justice Department official who is the executive director of Justice at Stake. The Republican state committee has already used North Carolina as a test case. In 2012, it financed ads extolling a sitting Supreme Court justice, Paul Newby, known to be a Republican, to help him beat back a challenge from Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, an appeals court judge and grandson of former Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr., who died in 1985.

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The explosion in outside funding is the latest development in a winding path for North Carolina’s judicial elections. In 2002, in an effort to curb spending and level the playing field, North Carolina, then under Democratic control, established public financing for races. It also said the races must be nonpartisan.

Emphasis mine. Did you hear that, Wallace Jefferson? This is happening in a state that already has non-partisan judicial elections. I’ve said all along that removing party labels from judicial candidates will do nothing to curb the influence of outside groups, and here’s the proof. North Carolina had a good idea, but recent Supreme Court decisions that have eviscerated campaign finance laws have rendered that idea moot. Until we do something about that, we’re not even tinkering around the edges. Link via Ed Kilgore.

As it happens, Judge Hudson made the cut in her primary and will be on the ballot in November, where I’m sure she’ll continue to face this kind of barrage. TheChron editorial board, in an otherwise laudable piece about the need for greater accountability among judges, also lamented the partisan election process for judges and pushed for an appointment-with-retention-elections system. Putting aside the fact that retention elections would have the same problems with big money that our current system has, you still have to design an appointment system that isn’t inherently political and also has the capacity to handle the thousand-plus elected judicial offices in Texas. As I keep saying every time this subject comes up, I don’t necessarily favor the system we now have. It has plenty of warts and weaknesses, no doubt about it. But all the would-be reformers I come across never mention the money issue, and they almost never discuss the pros and cons of their preferred alternative as well as the ones they don’t prefer. I’d be a lot more open to their suggestions if I felt like they they were honestly accounting for their positions instead of just dumping on the status quo. Convince me it’s a change for the better and not just a change for the sake of change. The system we have now may not be good, but that doesn’t mean that the alternatives would be an improvement.

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