Incumbent Robin Hudson and Charlotte Judge Eric Levinson are headed toward a November showdown in a state Supreme Court race already drawing national headlines for the amount of partisan money it has drawn.
Hudson, a two-term Democrat, and Levinson, a Republican and Mecklenburg Superior Court judge, were the two top vote-getters in the three-candidate field.
With almost all statewide votes counted, Hudson led with more than 42 percent.
Levinson, attempting to become the first member of the high court to serve on every judicial rung below it, had about 37 percent.
Newcomer Jeanette Doran, with ties to North Carolina GOP kingmaker Art Pope, was third with 21 percent.
The race marked the second straight campaign in which a state Supreme Court seat, supposedly a nonpartisan position, has drawn substantial sums of money from national groups. Four Supreme Court seats will be up for grabs in November, setting the stage for what is expected to be record spending on state judicial races.
At least $1 million poured into the primary fight for Hudson’s seat. The largest chunk – $650,000 – came from the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee. That money helped pay for an ad campaign that claimed Hudson is soft on child molesters.
Democrats and some former court members say the ads distort Hudson’s 2010 opinion that molesters should not be punished retroactively under a law that didn’t exist when they were convicted.
The Republican state committee had spent heavily in North Carolina court races before. In 2012, it paid for ads supporting incumbent Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, a Republican.
Critics say the ads against Hudson highlights how some groups are trying to politicize a branch of government that is supposed to be above partisanship.
Democrats contend that national Republican groups want like-minded judges to protect GOP redistricting maps as well as recently adopted conservative agendas. For example, the state’s highest court could decide cases about school vouchers, teacher tenure and new election laws that require voter IDs.
Republicans said the ads fairly question Hudson’s record, and that political speech is protected under the Constitution and that outside spending is within the rules of politics and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Levinson, in thanking the voters, said he is the only candidate left with trial and appellate court experience.
“It’s critical that the courts remain a respected place, where criminals are punished and civil disputes are properly resolved,” he said. The News & Observer contributed.