We write as members of the North Carolina bar who are alarmed by reports that political action committees are expected to spend substantial sums influencing voters in this Novembers election of judges. Such money-driven campaigns are nothing less than an assault on judicial independence.
Campaign expenses paid by a special interest group to elect judges seen as favorable to its point of view will surely undermine public confidence in the independence and integrity of our courts. We urge voters to be skeptical of any messages propounded by these groups, especially if they involve controversial political issues. Advocacy of this kind obstructs the proper role of the courts and diminishes public confidence in judges, at great cost to our democracy.
North Carolina and the nation live under the rule of law: a process of governing that ensures the same rules are applied fairly and uniformly to all citizens. The rule of law protects the rights of everyone not just the rich, the powerful and the popular, but also the poor, the weak and the despised. Laws cannot govern us well if they are not administered by skilled and independent judicial officers. A judiciary committed to the rule of law, free of outside influence, is the cornerstone of democracy. Accordingly, North Carolinas judges swear an oath to administer justice without favoritism to anyone.
In North Carolina we continue to choose judges at every level, from district courts to the state Supreme Court, by popular elections. Although we believe there are better ways to choose judges, our immediate anxiety is about the expenditure of more and more money on judicial elections. Lawyers willing to give up their law practice and serve as a judge have no choice but to raise money to campaign. In many states that elect judges, the price of doing that has skyrocketed. What is happening this year leads us to fear that North Carolina will join those ranks. A group known as the North Carolina Judicial Coalition has been formed to engage in issue advocacy. Another group, Civitas Action, Inc., has, according to filings with the State Board of Elections, spent $72,000 thus far on radio advertisements in support of a state Supreme Court campaign. More such committees, commonly referred to as super PACs, may soon enter the scene.
We cannot foresee what these special interest groups have in store for the airwaves. But it is important to ask some basic questions now. What message do special interest groups leave with the public about our courts? Will citizens who hear issue advocacy paid for by such a group believe that a judge thus supported will be free to examine the facts, the legal issues in the case, and the relevant law before ruling in a case that may involve the interests of that group in short, to do what judges are sworn to do? Or will the public believe the judges support of positions embraced by the group is a foregone conclusion?
Judging, like every human endeavor, depends on the individual capacities of those society entrusts to do the job. The best judges are good lawyers who are committed to habits of detachment and reflection, to intellectual engagement and open mindedness, and to reexamining their own assumptions. The impressions the public takes away from politicized judicial elections can only lessen the benchs reputation for fairness and integrity. Public confidence in the integrity of court decisions will erode if judges are perceived as politicians in robes, deciding cases according to what may satisfy their campaign contributors. Even if judges have the courage to ignore supporters expectations, the distinction between judges and politicians is blurred by issue advocacy in judicial campaigns.
We fear for the long-term effects of politicized elections on the quality of the North Carolina bench. At what point will political intrusion lead to the election of judges who are wedded to specific views that predetermine court rulings, destroying the judiciarys effectiveness as faithful guardians of the rule of law? Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day OConnor has described this danger well: Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that the courts are supposed to uphold.
In the end, how we choose judges in North Carolina will determine what kind of judges we have. As long as we continue to choose them by contested judicial elections, all voters must repudiate any attempt by a special interest group to obtain the favor of a judge by financial campaign support. Our system of popular elections assumes that the people will try to learn about each judicial candidate to decide whether the candidate is dependent on favor from special interests, or is a competent professional, fair, impartial, and accountable only to the rule of law. This is the choice citizens now face, however difficult it may be.
We urge all North Carolinians to hold the fundamental importance of an independent judiciary squarely before their eyes between now and November 6.