Races for the N.C. Supreme Court are usually quiet affairs. But this fall, even as the campaigns for president and governor are overshadowing all else, an unusually high-profile – and expensive – battle for one Supreme Court seat is simmering.Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby is being challenged by Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV in the only Supreme Court race on the ballot. Voters will also decide three seats on the N.C. Court of Appeals.
The courts are North Carolina’s two highest. The seven-member Supreme Court hears appeals from the Court of Appeals, as well as all death penalty, redistricting and utility commission rate cases. The 15-member Court of Appeals handles appeals from the trial courts, including civil, criminal and domestic cases. These offices demand judges with a sharp intellect, deep knowledge of the law and a commitment to impartiality. The heavy caseload also demands judges who can work quickly without sacrificing quality.
Here’s how we see this year’s races.
The Newby-Ervin race has garnered an unusual amount of attention for two reasons: The outcome will determine the court’s balance, and an independent superPAC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Newby’s behalf.
The race is nonpartisan, but Newby is a Republican and Ervin a Democrat. The current court tilts 4-3 for Republicans; an Ervin victory would flip that. With a Republican redistricting plan and other important cases destined for the court, the parties are taking note.
Those stakes largely explain why outside special interests have become involved. The N.C. Judicial Coalition, a superPAC organized and funded by conservatives, has reportedly spent close to $450,000 so far on ads for Newby. The PAC is headed by former state Republican Party chairman Tom Fetzer.
Ervin’s supporters argue that voters shouldn’t elect a justice who might be beholden to special interests with an ideological agenda.
The infusion of special-interest cash into a judicial race makes us queasy. The practice could create the impression, if not the reality, that the state’s highest justices are political players who cannot be trusted to approach cases in a fair and independent way.
But the PAC money by itself says nothing about Newby’s qualifications for the court.
In his nearly eight years as a Supreme Court justice, Newby, 57, has proven to be smart and fair-minded. Until the PAC’s money started flowing, there was minimal concern about his impartiality. A Duke and Carolina graduate, Newby was an assistant U.S. attorney for 19 years before joining the high court.
Newby has won bipartisan support from current and past public officials, including from two Democratic and two Republican former chief justices.
Ervin, 56, is also highly qualified. A graduate of Davidson College and Harvard Law School, he has performed well as a Court of Appeals judge the past three years and on the N.C. Utilities Commission before that. He would make a fine Supreme Court justice.
We hope North Carolina doesn’t follow other states where high-dollar judicial campaigns are the norm. And if this were a race for the legislature, we’d probably share Ervin’s ideological viewpoint more than Newby’s.
But that’s not what should decide this race. Newby has performed admirably as a Supreme Court justice, and vows that he will remain impartial going forward. He has earned that chance. We support Paul Newby’s reelection.
Court of Appeals
Three incumbent Court of Appeals judges face challenges. Wanda Bryant is running against Marty McGee; Linda McGee (no relation to Marty) faces David Robinson; and Cressie Thigpen is being challenged by Chris Dillon. All three incumbents have performed admirably and deserve another term.
Wanda Bryant vs. Marty McGee
Marty McGee, a graduate of UNC and Wake Forest, has earned a solid reputation in his 12 years as a Cabarrus County district court judge. His experience gives him a familiarity with the kinds of cases the Court of Appeals hears, as well as the ability to manage a large caseload.
Bryant, though, has served well on the court for 11 years. A Duke and N.C. Central graduate, Bryant says she has written more than 1,200 opinions on all kinds of cases. She has earned another term.
Linda McGee vs. David Robinson
Linda McGee is the second longest-serving member of the Court of Appeals, having served there since 1995. A graduate of UNC for both her B.A. and J.D. degrees, McGee says she has written about 2,000 opinions. She has amassed a strong record as a knowledgeable and conscientious judge.
Her opponent, David Robinson, works at law firm Nexsen Pruet in Raleigh. He bills himself as “the conservative candidate.” His experience, as well as his politicization of the office, are no match for McGee’s record. We recommend Linda McGee.
Cressie Thigpen vs. Chris Dillon
Thigpen was in private practice for 34 years before serving as a superior court judge and then Court of Appeals judge since 2010. He was also president of the N.C. Bar Association. Those experiences prepared him well for his time on the Court of Appeals.
His opponent, Chris Dillon, is a self-employed attorney who touts the “real-life experience” he obtained working as an executive at a community bank he helped start.
Thigpen has the necessary legal and judicial experience, and we recommend him for another term.