RALEIGH A super PAC formed to keep conservative Justice Paul Newby on the state Supreme Court has spent more than $800,000 so far on television ads supporting him.
The N.C. Judicial Coalition has spent the money at TV stations, records show, for ads airing in October and early November.
In the nonpartisan race, Newby is opposed by appellate Judge Sam Jimmy Ervin IV, who has drawn his own outside support of about $200,000, much of it from education groups.
The super PAC expenditures significantly surpass what the two candidates have been able to raise on their own about $300,000 each most of which comes from public financing.
Where the $800,000 backing Newby comes from is not yet known, but it should be revealed as filing deadlines approach. Monday is the deadline to report third-quarter financial activity, and independent expenditure committees have to file more frequently as the election nears.
So far, the N.C. Judicial Coalition formed by key conservatives and a former Democratic chief justice has only disclosed a sliver of its donors: $31,500 reported to the Internal Revenue Service through September, mostly from Raleigh private-school entrepreneur Bob Luddy, the committees chairman.
The size of the Judicial Coalitions ad buys startled open-government watchdog Bob Hall of Democracy N.C.
Thats carpet-bombing the state, Hall said. Its appalling, particularly for a judicial election, which should have more respect and not be treated like something that can be bought or auctioned off.
Free or purchased speech?
Others dont think super PAC money is bad. The Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies on Wednesday promoted a new paper by Elon University law professor Scott Gaylord defending the infusion of campaign money into judicial elections as a way of exposing the candidates to a broader audience.
Judicial elections generally draw fewer voters than those for other offices. Even with public financing, the candidates for the states appeals court candidates have a hard time making themselves known.
Theres a growing body of political research that increased spending increases voter participation, Gaylord said. It has the potential to be a very positive thing.
Even when the financing is lopsided, as appears to be the case in the Newby-Ervin race, Gaylord said, the unlimited fundraising and spending to support particular candidates encourages a more public debate.
One of the concerns with judicial elections is people dont know who is running, Gaylord said. This helps counter that, and opens the possibility for other people to weigh in as well, through advertising, opinion pieces in the news media or other means.
The fundamental issue, as Gaylord sees it, is the right to free speech including giving money to political candidates and issues. The impact of 2010 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals court is that people, corporations and unions can spend unlimited money to advocate for politicians.
Even if it means tagging the nonpartisan judicial candidates with a party affiliation, Gaylord says, that still benefits voters in the long run by providing more information than they might otherwise have.
Gaylord said if the super PACs arent forthcoming with the required financial disclosures, then states might look at further regulations. If theres back-room dealings and quid-pro-quo corruption, thats a bad thing, Gaylord said. Voters dont know and the candidates dont know, either. Transparency is a positive thing.
Hall disagrees with the free-speech argument.
This is purchased speech, Hall said. This is giving power to those with money to influence an election in ways that voters dont have the capacity to do. It really is turning the procedure over to those with cash.
Newby has said that he supports the free-speech concept that allows the unlimited spending, hoping it will help people learn about the candidates.
Ervin has said he is worried that the money will erode the publics confidence in the judiciary, and said he would feel that way even if there were an outside group raising money on his behalf.
The amount of money being spent on judicial-race ads is not unprecedented. In a 2000 Supreme Court race between Republican I. Beverly Lake Jr. and incumbent Democrat Henry Frye, $1.1 million was spent. Lake won.
But this is the first time that outside groups have raised and spent unlimited funds to promote a candidate.
Another outside group, the Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, has given $75,000 to the North Carolina group Civitas Action, which is spending the money on Newbys behalf. Other groups are also reported to be raising money for Newbys re-election.
The outside influence has prompted former state attorney general and retired federal judge Lacy Thornburg to write to the states news media. I have become increasingly concerned over news reports that political and ideological organizations and individuals, including from out of state, are participating in this election by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence who wins this Supreme Court seat, Thornburg wrote.
As a former attorney general, as a judge, as a citizen, I remain concerned perhaps even a little alarmed about what we see happening around this contest for a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.
900 TV ads for Newby
The super PAC supporting Newby has now spent more than $800,000, which buys more than 900 spots for a pro-Newby ad featuring banjos and hunting dogs and portraying Newby as tough on crime. Actually, just a small portion of his 20-year career at the U.S. Attorneys Office in Raleigh was spent on criminal prosecutions; mostly, he did civil work.
Ervin is also benefiting from outside groups. An independent expenditure group called N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools is supporting him with a mailer.
The mailer says Ervin shares progressive North Carolina values, and notes the Supreme Court considers such issues as voting rights, racial justice, womens health and public education.
Some of the money for the mailer comes from the National Education Association. The N.C. Association of Educators gave $100,000 in mid-September. And the NEA Advocacy Fund gave $20,000 in May.